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“Intersections of Social Justice, Race and Sport” teaches significance of sports protests

Jack Margaros

Dereck Webb, Marty Dobrow, Kyle Belanger and Matt Tettleton hosted and facilitated “The Intersections of Social Justice, Race and Sport” as part of SEAT at the Table week at Springfield College via Zoom on Saturday. 

The purpose of this session was for the 90+ viewers to understand why protests happen in sports and explain their significance.

A slew of instances were mentioned from each panelist, highlighting different points in American history and how they tied in with the specific instance of a protest at hand. 

The first social justice protest in sports occurred in 1968, where Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously performed the Black Power salute during the national anthem at the Summer Olympics to protest the mistreatment of Black Americans in the late 60s. 

This was an incredibly important event in American history, mainly because it “establishes a way where an athlete can use this moment to start a conversation,” as Tettleton described it. Smith and Carlos were each given a huge platform, and saw an opportunity to bring light to more important issues as opposed to themselves. 

But with that they took a huge risk, and were not met with positive reactions. Media outlets, teammates and especially vocal fans gave them intense backlash. TIME Magazine published an article about ten days later entitled, “Black Complaint,” calling the protest “a public display of petulance.”

Tom Waddell, a Springfield College graduate, however, was a decathlete and teammates of Smith and Carlos at those 1968 Summer Olympics, Dobrow pointed out. He may have been the only teammate that openly commended the salute. He was quoted in The Washington Post the day after the protest saying he “absolutely agreed with (Smith and Carlos)” and he was “pleased with their protest.”

For the most part, though, the feedback was not positive with Smith and Carlos’ actions. It took a long time for protests in sport to start becoming more accepted. In today’s sports climate, there’s definitely more open support, but that’s not to say that there’s no more backlash.

Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose not to stand for the National Anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality. He’s been met with negative comments, so much so that he was essentially blacklisted and evicted from the NFL. He has not returned since. 

Conversely, there’s been an outpouring of support from current and former NFL players — who have fervently vouched for his return to the field. Nike, one of the biggest athletic brands in the world, supports Kaepernick. 

Truth is, protests in sport are still frowned upon in a sense, by a focused group of people, but the amount of support for them has increased exponentially since Smith and Carlos in 1968. 

This evolution is similar to the NBA’s trajectory. 

In 1996, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf chose not to stand for the Anthem, and eventually got suspended for it. As a compromise, he was allowed to look at the floor and close his eyes and recite the Islamic Anthem. 

Now, as social justice issues have been brought to light more than ever over the past six months, the NBA has been at the forefront of initiatives. As they chose to restart the season in “The Bubble,” they painted “Black Lives Matter” on the court. 

Warm up shirts and other team gear shared some of the same sentiments, and players were given the option to use a social justice related phrase on the back of their jerseys where the last name would usually be. 

The WNBA, arguably, has been more active. Similar to the NBA’s plan, they created a “Wubble” and did a lot of the same things. Aside from the restart, one instance that Belanger pointed to epitomizes the intersection of social justice and sport: Maya Moore. 

One of the best players in the WNBA and in the prime of her career, she chose to stop playing basketball in 2019 to help free Jonathan Irons, who was wrongfully jailed at the age of 16. She still hasn’t returned to the court. 

The overarching theme that came from each of these protests was this process of silence and erasure. Also the amount of risk involved in performing such actions. All of these athletes risked their careers, especially Moore and Kaepernick. All of these athletes, despite strong resistance, were silenced and “erased from public record,” as Belanger explained. 

The notion that sports should not be politicized is still something that many believe should be the case. Although, as this session explained, “sports are inextricably political.”

Photo: Office of Multicultural Affairs

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