During the 1968 Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos shook the collective American consciousness with a silent gesture.
After winning the gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200-meter sprint, the two men raised black-gloved fists into the summer night sky as the Star Spangled Banner droned on in the background. The image of their silent protest—of racial inequity in the United States—remains as striking now as it was 49 years ago. It immediately turned both men (as well the third man on the platform, Australian sprinter Peter Norman) into international pariahs. It's a moment that has come to symbolize what it means to be a socially aware athlete.
These past few years have seen the re-emergence of the athlete-activist hybrid. In 2017, in no small part due to President Donald Trump's frequent Twitter diatribes—on Steph Curry, NFL players, and others—that evolution gained even more momentum. As the multitude of platforms for self-expression available to players and pundits pushed the discussion into public forums, this year's athlete demonstrations have shifted the conversation around race and equality into a more nuanced (albeit for some, caustic) place.
Below, a sport-by-sport breakdown of the ways in which we saw athlete activism manifest itself over the past year.
Colin Kaepernick, who hasn't played a game this season, continues to loom over the National Football League. Though the ex-49ers quarterback stated last year that he would not continue to kneel during this season, the 29-year-old never received a contract offer from an NFL team, and remains unsigned. Questions of collusion among the owners who refused to sign him and his media silence have hung over every conversation around protest in the NFL.
This season saw a new group of players picking up the torch of protest left behind in the absence of Kaepernick. Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett chose to sit with a towel draped over his head during the anthem, causing consternation for some. When questioned about this decision, Bennett stated that it would take white players joining the anthem to create meaningful action. Speaking to ESPN Bennet said: "It would take a white player to really get things changed, because when somebody from the other side understands and they step up and they speak up about it ... it would change the whole conversation."
Bennett made this statement in the wake of the alt-right fueled violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one woman dead. When Trump blamed "many sides" for the events that unfolded in Charlottesville, two white players, Chris Long of the Philadelphia Eagles and Seth Devalve of the Cleveland Browns, joined the protests, which included kneeling, raised fists, and even remaining in the locker room entirely. Long chose to drape his arm around teammate Malcolm Jenkins as he raised his gloved fist into the air, a la Smith and Carlos, during the anthem; Devalve took a knee along with his teammates. These actions were a sign that players in the league were unifying around the message of equality and justice, a conversation started by Kaepernick.
Long, a Charlottesville native, and Jenkins are two of the more socially active players in the NFL. Jenkins has organized numerous events to bridge the gaps between communities of color, police officers, and legislators. Long has pledged that his entire salary for this season will go toward education equality.
To compound the Charlottesville fiasco, Trump continued his attack of the NFL and its players during speech at an Alabama rally for failed senatorial candidate Luther Strange. During his remarks to the crowd, Trump said that, if he was an NFL owner, he would: "Get that son of a bitch [a protesting player] off the field right now, he's fired. He's fired!" He continued: "For a week, [that owner would] be the most popular person in this country. Because that's a total disrespect of our heritage. That's a total disrespect for everything we stand for."
A conflict like this, between a professional sports league and the president, is pretty unprecedented. A few weeks after the "son of a bitch" comment, Trump continued to advocate for firing or suspending any player who protested the anthem, and even directed his ire at the league leadership itself via Twitter. The Pittsburgh Steelers attempted to steer clear of the controversy by keeping the entire team in the locker room pregame, but the maneuver wasn't entirely effective, as Steelers offensive lineman (and military veteran) Alejandro Villaneuva ended up standing alone in the tunnel with his hand placed over his heart while the anthem played. Villanueva later apologized for hanging his teammates out to dry, but did not back down from his belief in standing for the tune.
Trump blamed sagging NFL ratings on people's disgust over player protests. This is despite the fact that research shows that the majority of Americans support the players' right to protest. His complaints have continued throughout the season. Most recently, he leveled his anger at Oakland Raiders running back, and American treasure, Marshawn Lynch, who, before a game in Mexico City, sat for the U.S. anthem, but stood for the Mexican anthem.
The other major flash point of this season came from the league itself. In an explosive piece, ESPN The Magazine reported divisive comments made by Houston Texans owner Bob McNair in reference to the player protests. During an NFL owners meeting McNair said, "We can't have the inmates running the prison." Players responded immediately: Star receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who left the facility and skipped practice, and Pro-Bowl offensive tackle Duane Brown came out with strong comments against McNair and offensive comments he made in the past. There was talk of a walk out, and many other forms of protest, but ultimately the players acquiesced to playing the game and McNair apologized.
These incidents continue to stand at the forefront of many people's lives. And the protests that have started at the pro-level have trickled all the way down to high school players. Football, a sport that stands right at the intersection of pseudo-militaristic patriotism and sporting spectacle, will be reckoning with the ramifications of these protests for years to come.
In Major League Baseball, only one player chose to kneel during the anthem. Oakland A's catcher Bruce Maxwell took a knee during the anthem before two games against the Texas Rangers. Maxwell was raised in a military family, and stated that the protest was instigated by the comments made by Trump about NFL players. Maxwell would later find himself ensnared in controversy after being charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after he pulled a gun on a female delivery driver at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was also accused of fabricating a supposed run-in with a waitress in Alabama who Maxwell claimed refuse to serve him on account of his protest. Maxwell's criminal and personal issues allowed many to discredit his protest; others argued his criminal issues shouldn't have an effect on the credibility of his political beliefs.
Adam Jones, a center fielder for the Orioles, spoke at length about the racial epithets hurled at him from the stands after an incident in Boston where a fan threw peanuts at him and called him the n-word. Jones' comments inspired other players to support his position, including Boston outfielder Mookie Betts. When asked about the incidents of racial abuse he has suffered in the league, Jones didn't mince words. "Nothing's at rest when it comes to race," he said. "It's all about the conversation. Once you have the dialog, you can work toward the resolution." The next game, Boston fans gave Jones a standing ovation as he made his way out to his position. A small sign that the message registered.
But baseball still has a lot to reckon with when it comes to racial issues in the sport. Just in the past World Series, Yuli Gurriel of the Houston Astros was caught on camera making a racist gesture toward Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish. Gurriel was suspended for his actions (the suspension won't go into effect until this upcoming season). The issue's resolution—or lack thereof—left a lot to be desired: Darvish ultimately was put in a position to make the situation go away, while his aggressor never apologized.
WNBA & NBA
Female professional basketball players have long been the unsung heroes of the activist movement in sports. Over the years WNBA players have performed walkouts during the anthem, worn T-shirts during pre-game warm-ups emblazoned with the names of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, held press conferences in the wake of police shootings, and have generally been consistently outspoken on the issues even in the face of league fines, police walk-outs, and relative media apathy as compared to their male counterparts.
This year, both teams and ownership continued that leadership in the activist space. Women's National Basketball Association players pushed the envelope of activism, and often put themselves further out on the ledge than their male counterparts, largely without similar levels of media attention.
When the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks faced off in the WNBA finals the Sparks remained in the locker room during the anthem for the first four games, and even staged a walkout before a finals game, as they were subjected to boos from some fans.
Elsewhere, the Seattle Storm's all-female ownership group partnered with Planned Parenthood for the 2017 season. The team raised money for the group via donations from ticket sales and rallies—with one such fundraiser bringing in more than $40,000 in one fell swoop—during a year when the reproductive health-care provider was under fire politically. The New York Liberty led a town hall meeting before a game in partnership with the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality as a part of a large Unity Day initiative. The event brought together community leaders, police officers, and legislators to promote dialogue between the groups about the issues faced on both sides. The team played a video calling for better dialogue between citizens and police in front of a crowd of about 10,000 people before the Liberty game that night.
In the National Basketball Association, players mostly avoided any pregame displays of protest, but they still made their voices heard. From the top-down the league has made a concerted effort to play an active role in advocating for social justice. Commissioner Adam Silver has differentiated himself from many of his peers in his openness and support for his players' political points of view. Still, Silver has made it clear that protesting the anthem is against league policy; as no player has protested in that way this season, it's not known what punishment the league could impose.
Before the season even began two star players found themselves in the spotlight. Steph Curry, star guard for the Golden State Warriors, said he would not do the standard White House visit for the reigning league champions, in protest of Trump's election to the presidency. This prompted an angry reply from Trump via Twitter:
This prompted fellow NBA superstar LeBron James to reply in a wonderfully dismissive manner, and be the first basketball player to ever dunk on the president.
LeBron has also exerted his influence by refusing to stay at Trump-branded hotels. According to the New York Times, the property that has since been forced to rebrand itself due to LeBron's embargo affecting their business and profitably. And LeBron didn't just make statements, he acted. This fall he opened a grade school for at-risk kids in Akron, Ohio, his hometown, and providing any student who graduates after 2021 a free scholarship to the University of Akron.
Steph Curry penned an open letter on Veterans Day to advocate for revamping the decrepit Veterans Association system. Coaches joined in with vocal support as well. Gregg Popovich of the Spurs has been an ardently outspoken critic of the president, along with Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr. While Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy wrote an opinion piece for Time about the inherent patriotism of player protest in sports.
The difference between LeBron and co.'s actions from that of the NFL players, and by extension their Olympic predecessors, is a uniquely 21st-century one: Many NFL players choose to make their message physically demonstrative out of choice, much as Smith and Carlos made use of a simple gesture to send a message. Modern athletes can reach a global audience from their pocket. Yet, even as the mediums of message delivery change, the salient connection between the '60s to the modern day is clear: Athletes can use their standing to influence societal change. Like it or not, that's not going away.