When we think of sport being adopted as a forum for political causes, we more often than not conjure in our minds the image of African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on the 1968 Olympic medalists’ podium, raising their fists during the playing of the United States national anthem – a gesture of strength and unity for those fighting for human rights, they said.
“If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.“– Tommie Smith
Controversial at the time, their act has since become synonymous with the empowerment of historically oppressed people, and a symbol of inspiration for millions. They were also concerned, they said, about the way a certain world-famous black boxer was stripped of his title…
From a heritage of slavery, Cassius Clay rejected his family’s slave name of Clay, becoming Cassius X and then – after joining the Nation of Islam – “Muhammad Ali.” Rival pugilist Ernie Terrell still insisted on ignorantly referring to him as “Cassius Clay,” so in his fight with Ali, Muhammad famously pummeled him while asking, “What’s my name?!” and calling him an “Uncle Tom.” Muhammad Ali then went on to sacrifice his boxing career for a court battle as he resisted being drafted to fight for the U.S. in Vietnam, declaring, “I got nothing against no Viet Cong; no Vietnamese ever called me a n***er!” Threatened with imprisonment over his resistance, he simply stated, “So what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.” With mass protests against the military campaign in Vietnam – an unmitigated disaster for the U.S. elites – decades later few even attempt to defend it, in the same way few now defend the opposition to the civil rights movement at the time.
“If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me – I’d join tomorrow.“– Muhammad Ali
But the civil rights movement has long been oversimplified as a single-issue cause of the legendary Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, when in fact his commitment to social justice naturally reached into the realms of trade unionism, and American culture today generally holds him in high regard while at the same time cleverly omitting the fact he was assassinated while supporting striking sanitary workers. Like Muhammad Ali, he was also vocally opposed to the military involvement in Vietnam.
The creation of communist threats around the world was important for the military industrial complex: weapons manufacturers make millions from war, and peace doesn’t boost profits for their shareholders (this is why the military industrial complex sponsors presidential candidates). The insanity of this is represented by how the U.S. and the U.K. both permit arms sales to human rights violators such as Saudi Arabia, who in turn support the latest threat: ISIS.
Our government officials wear poppies at the same time as neglecting armed forces veterans, using them instead to promote and justify military aggression overseas for – in the case of Afghanistan and especially Iraq – resources such as oil. The rise of militarism and flag-waving is not a coincidence, and the rise of the “Tea Party” and Donald Trump in the U.S. and “Britain First” in the U.K. are a product of this: rampant nationalism within an increasingly militaristic culture, where in order to care about your country – or better yet, your armed forces – you have to support your government’s military aggression overseas that so often put brave servicemen and women unnecessarily in harm’s way, even if it provokes terrorist attacks on your towns (in fact, the terrorist attacks help too, because in turn, they promote nationalism and militarism).
“Suppose somebody asks, ‘Do you support the people in Iowa?’ …It’s not even a question; it doesn’t even mean anything. And that’s the point of public relations slogans like ‘Support Our Troops,’ is that they don’t mean anything, they mean as much as whether you support the people in Iowa. Of course there was an issue: the issue was, do you support our policy, but you don’t want people to think about the issue. That’s the whole point of good propaganda, you want to create a slogan that nobody is gonna be against and I suppose everybody will be for, because nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything. But its crucial value is it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something: ‘Do you support our policy?’ And that’s the one you’re not allowed to talk about.“– Noam Chomsky
All of these violent atrocities in the West, as well as overseas in bombing campaigns, certainly put sports into perspective, and as we can see, several athletes have realised this and used their athletic platform to raise awareness on issues far more important than a sporting contest.
In the wake of a disproportionate amount of police brutality towards African-Americans in particular, including murders, the last few years have seen the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the National Football League’s San Francisco 49ers would turn out to be embroiled in controversy surrounding the cause, despite society long since redeeming the likes of Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Muhammad Ali, all of whom began a battle continuing to this day: it’s the same one Colin Kaepernick is fighting.
As is no secret, the Pentagon takes millions of dollars in taxes from struggling American citizens to pay for bombing campaigns while people at home struggle to pay for healthcare or education – and they get away with it because of the culture of fear, and the perpetuation of the perception of threats from overseas. But what is less known, is the fact that – to further boost militarisation and nationalism in American culture – they went directly to the NFL.
That’s right. Pentagon officials reached into their deep pockets to strike a deal that would be laughable if it wasn’t so cynical: they paid between $60,000 and $1,000,000 to initially 14 teams to have them pause before the start of their games so they could sing the anthem, fly the flag, and – yes, you guessed it – “support our troops.” Yes, as Chomsky suggested, who wouldn’t want to support their troops? It’s unquestionable. And that’s what the Pentagon intended by striking at the core of apple-pie American culture: get the American people associating even their favourite sports with nationalism and militarism. And, as we have seen, it has largely worked.
Hence such a bizarre backlash – despite all history has shown us – against Colin Kaepernick when he decided to drop to one knee during such flag-waving ceremonies. The media quickly confronted him about it, and he was quick to articulate his actions.
“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. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”– Colin Kaepernick
The San Francisco 49ers had a change of Head Coach, and the regime change saw “Kap” released from the team. Usually, a quarterback of his stature would have been snapped up by another franchise pretty much immediately. But it didn’t happen. And apart from the same kind of white racists over in the U.K. who called soccer player Eni Aluko “bitter” for challenging racism while being dropped from the national team, most people began to believe this ongoing free agent status was simply because Kap had openly opposed the establishment, albeit by merely taking a knee during the national anthem.
Yes, having the teams observe the anthem was a recent phenomenon in the NFL, but even so, as NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy stated at the time, “Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem.” So of course, it’s not like this was even that much of a deal at all.
But the culture had changed: Pentagon money had meant that the rules of the NFL or even of the flag itself were irrelevant – they had successfully created a nationalistic, militaristic culture where people were outraged over something as simple as taking a knee, even if it wasn’t breaking any rules – they were angrier about this than they were about black people being slaughtered in the streets of the United States by officers of the law. Think about that for a moment.
That absurdity is the greatest possible victory for fascists in the Pentagon and in the White House.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired.’? You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag – he’s fired.'”– Donald Trump
Of course, the amazing and inspirational women of basketball have been protesting injustice for quite a while longer. Recently, protest has been increasingly prominent amongst their male counterparts, as well – but without the same outcry provoked by American football, something some feel is due to the different audiences attracted by the sports.
“Oh, (Colin Kaepernick) is being blackballed. That’s a no-brainer. All you have to do is read the transactions every day, when you see the quarterbacks who are being hired. He’s way better than any of them. But the NFL has a different fan base than the NBA. The NBA is more urban, the NFL is more conservative.”– Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors Head Coach
Pentagon bribery doesn’t hurt, either.
Those around the important, bold and brave Black Lives Matter movement all seemingly unanimously embrace Colin Kaepernick for standing up (or kneeling down) for the worthy cause – including his own brilliant awareness-raising Know Your Rights initiative – but have different thoughts on the prospect of an NFL team finally hiring the excellent quarterback, from what I’ve gauged from the internet the last few months:
In the midst of his legal action against the NFL, some worry that Kap signing for a team would be part of a compromise where it would disprove the claims of being “blackballed,” and potentially contain him (if that’s possible), while subjecting him to further abuse if he continued protesting; others feel his message would be uncompromising yet amplified if he was part of an NFL team, and would be a vindication of his efforts, taking his standing and his protests to another level of prominence, perhaps even expanding the movement even more to the mainstream.
There are indeed pros and cons to both. But just as Muhammad Ali simply wanted to take part in high-profile boxing competition while in his own prime that was stolen from him because he stood up for what was right, Colin Kaepernick is still an American football player who keeps training, and simply wants to play. He deserves to play. Whether he’s a more effective activist as an official NFL player, or outside of the NFL, remains to be seen – but if he does get signed by a team, they will, on principle, enjoy my support, providing they set him loose to both play, and protest, with freedom. I’ll be buying the merchandise, just to prove a point of popularity.
As history has told us, sport means nothing without principles, but is at its best when it retains them, free from the vested interests of war profiteers and corrupt politicians. In fact, its enjoyment for all of us is heightened when its participants stand up for fairness on and off the playing field…otherwise, you’re just cheering for a jersey.