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The History of Politics in Sports

Many people associate sports with the idea of competition and a team working towards one goal. It is often referred to as an escape from the real world. Sports is looked at as a time where you and your friends can sit down on the couch, with a beer in your hand and forget about work, family issues, politics, and real life problems. While the idea of that is great and all, it is frankly not true. Sports and politics have always been intertwined, and those two ideals revolve around racism.


Athletes are some of the most influential people in the world and in the beginning of the 20th century, it was a “political act” for a black athlete to even step on the field. Take track star, Jesse Owens as an example. Owens was threatened, just because he was going to participate in the 1936 Olympics. Owens ended up breaking all sorts of records for long jump and as a sprinter. His success during the Olympics was revolutionary especially because it was in Berlin, Germany during Hitler’s Third Reich.


A similar occurrence happened again just over a decade later when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. The idea of Robinson lacing up his cleats was political even though he was just playing the game he loved. The immense pressure that black athletes like Robinson and Owens carried led to the upbringing of a heritage. This heritage calls for black professional athletes to use their platform to be the voice of unheard voices across the country.


Since being a professional athlete is one of the most popular jobs in America, these trailblazing athletes had the platform to spread a message. The aforementioned heritage was represented well throughout the 1960’s and 70’s. Tommie Smith and John Carlos brought awareness by raising a fist in the 1968 Olympics after placing first and third in the 200 meter race. Both Smith and Carlos wore a black glove and black socks along with no shoes to represent African American poverty in America. Another significant Black athlete to make a political protest in the 60’s was Heavyweight boxing champion, Muhammad Ali. Ali refused to serve in the Vietnam War as a way to protest how black people were treated in the United States. The Heritage was well represented until the era of Michael Jordan.


Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest athlete of all time. His work ethic and success on the basketball court separates him from the pack, but what he did not do was significant. He was corporate friendly and would not talk politics. An example of this was when he refused to support Harvey Gantt in the 1990 US Senate Race in his home state of North Carolina. Gantt’s competitor, Jesse Helms, was well known for being an extremely conservative person with a history of racism, sexism, and homophobia. 


“Republicans buy sneakers, too,” Jordan said.


While Jordan had the right to not speak on politics, he was the “most popular man in America” and had the platform that nearly no other black person had in the United States. He had the capabilities to make real change in America, but he chose not too. 

There was an absence of representation all the way up until 2014 when a scandal occurred involving former Los Angeles Clippers owner, Donald Sterling. Sterling made racist comments directed at Lakers hall of fame Point Guard, Magic Johnson. The Clippers players threatened their participation in a playoff game, but opted to wear their warmup shirts inside out as a way to show that they don’t support or represent the Clippers organization under Sterling.


Later that same year came the police shooting of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri. To protest police brutality, five St. Louis Rams players came out of the tunnel with their hands up just a few days after the shooting. In the NBA, players such as Lebron James and Kobe Bryant warmed up in shirts that read, “I Can’t Breathe”. Those were the last words of Eric Garner, a black man who was killed by police officers in New York. James has been very active in the political realm. He made a three-part documentary series called, “Shut Up and Dribble” based around the role of Black athletes in today’s political climate. 


The athlete who has made arguably the most political change in the United States in recent history is former 49ers Quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. In 2016, Kaepernick kneeled for the National Anthem as a way to protest police brutality and the oppression of Black people in America.


“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said.


Since his protests in 2016, Kaepernick hasn’t been signed to any NFL teams. It's obvious that he has been blackballed, but he’s continued to make his voice heard. While many people viewed his kneeling as a sign of disrespect towards the military, he has made it clear that it has nothing to do with the military. He is exercising his right to protest, which is actually included in the freedoms that people who serve in the military fight for. Kaepernick is now regarded as one of the most revolutionary people in modern day activism.


Since the killing of George Floyd in May of 2020, athletes have come up with creative initiatives to make their voices heard. Examples include NBA players putting messages on the back of their jerseys to show unity and NFL players putting the name of victims of police brutality on the back of their helmets. NBA players including Bucks Small Forward, Giannis Antetokounmpo have protested games and other teams have held out of practice as well.


The increase of player activism has led to political change, higher voter turnout, and better education. Sports and politics have always been intertwined and athletes, now more than ever have been able to make their voices heard.

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