When Athletes Protest

The Take-A-Knee movement is the most recent step in the long history of African American athletes fighting for their rights on the field. The position of Black athletes in sports has a controversial and much debated impact on their lives and the rights of African Americans. On one sideline, athletics provides a platform for African Americans to express issues they feel strongly about. In the case of Michigan State University’s football team during the 50s and 60s, the program acted as a position for “black athletes to challenge segregation both on and off the field” (Smith 2007). On the other sideline, sports and the emphasis put on them can lead to the destruction of the Black male, followed by the destruction of the Black female and family. John Gaston discusses the impact of media and the great emphasis on young African Americans being athletes over scholars as destroying the Black athletes ability to function outside of the realm of sports (1986). Both sides have valid points, using similar lines of evidence to show the faults in the logic that racism takes advantage of in sports. While there are pros and cons to these views, the impact of African American Athletes for the Civil Rights movement has a positive effect, pushing to the forefront of discussions the inequality that existed in the past and is still present today.

As a student athlete, I was told upon my signing that I would be representing the school. Everything that I was doing would be public and anyone would be able to see that I played volleyball and that I would need to act accordingly because I was in an elevated position, in the public eye. And that was just at a Division 3 school. Athletes in prominent positions at Division 1 schools or in professional games have even more attention on them and with that publicity comes a responsibility, if they chose it. For African American athletes, sports can put them in a position that allows for their voices to be heard. Modern athletes like Colin Kaepernick have decided to use this privilege to express their dissatisfaction with the way racial equality is being handled. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way”. This decisive moment in the 2016 49ers preseason paved the way for greater discussions about the issues of race that were not being addressed. This one choice by Kaepernick spread across the NFL, through all other levels of athletics and across the seas. And during the anthem at some of my own volleyball games, girls were kneeling in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

Michigan State’s Football team acted in a similar way to Kaepernick. They protested practices after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. This action fully merged the “revolt of the black athlete” that was taking place with the Black Power movement. All of this was taking place a few short months before the 1968 Olympics and the Black Power Salute and during the middle of the Vietnam War, where athletes like Muhammad Ali were protesting the draft.

Just like Kaepernick and the black Michigan State players, Tommie Smith and John Carlos used their athletic privilege to challenge the treatment of African Americans. Smith and Carlos knew that there would be consequences to this form of protest and they met it head on. Carlos stated later that “I had a moral obligation to step up. Morality was a far greater force than the rules and regulations they had.” The podium was as much as stage as the track they ran on to claim the medals. They removed their shoes to protest poverty and wore beads and scarves to protest lynchings. Jackets were also unzipped to show support for all working class people, regardless of race. The “USA” written on the uniforms were also covered to “reflect the shame I felt that my country was traveling at a snail’s pace toward something that should be obvious to all people of good will.” Smith and Carlos were met with opposition, being booed during the anthem and being asked to leave the stadium after the anthem was done playing. To this day, this decision is being discussed and framed within the Black Lives Matter movement and the Take a Knee movement, showing that the fight is for every athlete, if they so chose to raise a fist and take a knee.


Gaston, John C. 1986. “The Destruction of the Young Black Male: The Impact of Popular Culture and Organized Sports.” Journal of Black Studies. Vol. 16 No. 4; pp. 369-384.

Smith, John Matthew. 2007. “‘Breaking the Plane’: Integration and Black Protest in Michigan State University Football during the 1960s.” Michigan Historical Review. Vol. 33, No. 2; pp. 101-129.

Thomas, P.L. 2014. “Speaking Truth to Power: Invisible Young Men: African American Males, Academics, and Athletics.” The English Journal. Vol. 104, No. 1; pp. 75-78.

Images from Google.

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