Earl Smith, PhD Angela J. Hattery, PhD
On June 4, 1967 at 105-15 Euclid Ave. in Cleveland, Jim Brown, Ali, Lou Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar) and other prominent Black athletes held their “summit” on Black athlete activism. The image of the summit is iconic, even appearing in the sports and culture exhibit in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC.
This social movement was further extended into international waters when both John Carlos and Tommie Smith, US track sprinters, demonstrated at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City (Zirin and Carlos 2013). They were dismissed from the games, sent back to the United States but were able to keep the medals they had won, though less well known is the fact that for years they were blackballed from earning a decent living.
As we leave 2017, I’m reflecting on the relatively new social movement for social justice by athletes, most often associated with Colin Kaepernick, but including LeBron James and the then Miami Heat who wore hoodies onto the court in 2012 in protest to the killing of Trayvon Martin or, again, LeBron James and the Cleveland Caveliers donning sweats during pre-game warm-ups that said “I can’t Breathe” protesting the murder of Eric Garner. And, during 2016 and 2017, Colin Kaepernick and a host of NFL players taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem to draw attention to the social injustices experienced by the Black community.
Colin Kaepernick on September 1, 2016 took a knee, refusing to stand during the National Anthem, he was later joined by teammate Eric Reed producing this photo that bought many in the US and around the world, to take notice of the issues of police brutality against Black people.
Around the time of this protest Kaepernick delivered a statement to the NFL media saying, in part:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
We ask, why now? Why these two time periods? What do they have in common?
In 1968 protests were in part a reaction to murder of Rev., Dr., Martin Luther King Jr., and the protests today are –in part– a reaction to the election of Donald J. trump as the 45th President of the United States.
What is different about 2017 compared to 1968? Among other things, the 1960s can only be characterized as an era of protest: protest against the Vietnam War, marches for civil rights, and the beginning of the women’s rights movement. Athletes were, in part, just doing what thousands of other people were doing, albeit on a different stage.
So, why are the athlete protests in 2016 and 2017 so controversial even though they are minuscule in comparison to not only the famous Black Athlete Summit in 1967, but also the Civil Rights marches (Selma: Edmund Pettus Bridge ).
Perhaps the difference is the overall lack of a culture of social protest in the second decade of the aughts. There is the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM), and in January 2017 the Women’s March protesting the election of Donald Trump, but overall, this decade is not one of widespread social activism. Which makes Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee that much more noticeable in the absence of other protests.
Perhaps the difference is that today’s athletes have more to lose? Jim Brown earned a paycheck similar to the average working American man, LeBron James earns more every single day than the average American will earn in a lifetime. On the other hand everyone in the 1960s had a lot to lose as well. In that way, athletes were just like regular people…an era that has long since passed us by.
Is it that people are less hopeful now? After 8 years of Barack Obama’s presidency in which people had much hope (Coates 2017), and a year into the Trump presidency, when many are skeptical that America will ever be great again, perhaps the risk of protest seems not worth the possible price?
As Chris Hayes (Hayes 2013) notes, income inequality is so much worse than it has been in a century and most people are trying just to get ahead, not to rock the boat.
As “arm-chair sociologists” W.E.B. Du Bois (cited in Green and Smith 1983) might argue if these athletes, especially those in the National Football League (NFL), really, really want to make some noise via protest actions, they would strike their regular season games if only for a game or two.
This won’t happen.
So why is it that college athletes, pro athletes of color and especially Black athletes are not willing to take a stand similar to that of Colin Kaepernick? Despite the publicity Kaepernick received, very few other athletes joined the protest.
My take on it all is that the athletes today are afraid of what they might lose. Student-athletes in the two “money making” sports of football and basketball can’t afford to lose scholarships, many of which are valued at around $50 to $60 thousand a year, per athlete.
The same for pro athletes who make approximately $450 thousand to 27mil a year in football and $490 thousand to millions and millions a year in basketball, topping out at the astronomical salary of $34 million a year for Steph Curry.
Regardless of which side of the scale you are on this is a lot of money that most Americans will not make across the life cycle. (the average American earns approximately $1,400,000 in their lifetime).
So if we are looking for easy, straightforward explanations for why the athlete protest movement is stalled, it is this: in deep contrast to the 1960s in which the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were passed, in the aftermath of the eight years of the Obama Presidency and in the realities of the Trump Presidency, there is too much to lose in an environment in which there seems to be little hope for any meaningful gain.
In 1968 Black people, and Black athletes had everything to gain, including equal opportunities. In 2017, under the myth of a post-racial society, Black athletes seemingly have everything to lose…well at least the almighty dollar.
Coates, ta -Nehisi. 2017. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. New York: Random House.
Edwards, Harry. 2017. Revolt of the Black Athlete. University of Illinois Press; Anniversary edition. Champaign, Illinois.
Green, Dan and Earl Smith. 1983. “W.E.B. DuBois and the Concepts of Race and Class” Phylon, Vol. 44, No. 4 (4th Qtr., 1983), pp. 262-272.
Hayes, Chris. 2013. Twilight of the Elites. New York: Broadway Books.
Moore, Louis. 2017. We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality. New York: Praeger.
Reid, Eric. 2017. “Why Colin Kaepernick and I Decided to Take a Knee.” New York Times, September 25th – http://nyti.ms/2q1fXfE
Smith, Earl. 2014. Race, Sport and the American Dream. 3rd Edition. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.
Smith, Earl and Dan Green, Dan and Earl Smith. 1983. “W.E.B. DuBois and the Concepts of Race and Class.” Phylon Vol. 44, No. 4:262-272.
Zirin, Dave and John Carlos. 2013. The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment that Changed the World. New York: Haymarket Books.