Whenever an athlete offers their opinion about a current social or political hot button issues, they are often met with cries of “stick to sports!” Unfortunately, the ignorant people who make those demands in the comments section seem to forget that freedom of speech applies to everyone, including celebrity athletes. They pay taxes just like us, live in the same cities as we do, and vote for the same candidates. They just happen to have a perfect platform to make a difference, since millions of sports fan will hear whatever it is they have to say.
Although no less a legend Michael Jordan once famously said “republicans buy sneakers too” when refusing to take a political side when questioned by reporters, athletes have been going public with hard line political stances for decades. Whether you agree or disgaree (or are just indifferent), here are 10 that truly stand out.
14. LeBron James Wears “I Can’t Breathe” T-Shirt
No one player in the NBA holds as much sway as King James. The Cleveland Cavaliers superstar, just by virtue of opening his mouth, influences everything from what people buy through his endorsements, to how the game is played on the court to who gets to play with him. And, he’s also been known as an activist unafraid to make a statement on what he perceived as injustice. In July of 2014, Eric Garner died during a confrontation with a New York Police Department Officer, his last words — caught on camera no less — being “I can’t breathe.” After a grand jury decided not to indict the officer in question later that year, mass protests broke out decrying police brutality. In solidarity with protesters, James, along with teammate Kyrie Irving and a few other NBAers decided to wear t-shirts emblazoned with “I Can’t Breathe” before a game in Brooklyn. Before that game, LeBron said, “I think it’s really important that we show our respect to the families. More importantly we’re in the city where tragedy happened and it’s really important to us that we stand up for a cause, especially this one. It hits close to home and means a lot to me.”
13. Michael Sam Kisses Boyfriend Live On TV
Homosexuality, for many decades and even now, has been and still is a taboo subject in overtly homophobic major league locker rooms. Put it this way, a professional athlete would probably sooner die than admit to being part of the LGBTQ crowd. It’s rather unfortunate that anyone’s sexual orientation or political affiliation, for that matter, should have any bearing on their careers. Like Jackie Robinson many decades before, though, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam tried to bash down the homophobic barrier in 2014. Good enough to be drafted, and openly gay, Sam was picked 249th overall byh the St. Louis Rams. He celebrated it just like any other player, kissing his boyfriend Vito Cammisano live on ESPN. Sam never outed anyone after being interviewed, saying only “I am not the only gay person in the NFL. I’m just saying there [are] a lot of us. I respect the players that did reach out to me and had the courage to tell me that they were also gay.”
12. Native Americans Protest Washington’s Racist Football Name
There are many sports teams nicknames that could be construed as offensive, even racist by today’s norms. None more so than the NFL’s “Redskins.” Yes, we have the Indians in Cleveland, the Blackhawks in Chicago and the Seminoles at Florida State. But, the term “Redskin” is particularly distasteful (this does not give Cleveland, however, a free pass on their “Chief Wahoo” mascot). In 2013, representatives from the Oneida Nation had a meeting with NFL executives to air their beef with the name, but commissioner Roger Goodell — as hypocritical as they come — refused to meet with them. Not impressed with the NFL’s lack of action thereafter, an assortment of native groups staged a huge protest about the name in 2014, with 4,000 showing up at the University of Minnesota. Democratic Rep Betty McCollum was succinct in her assessment of Washington’s and the NFL’s stance: “We are here to tell the NFL there is no honor in a racial slur. Here in Minnesota, we have 11 proud tribal nations, but only 150 years ago, their ancestors, men and women, elders and children, were hunted and murdered for profit. This was a government-funded policy of genocide. The pain of this brutal and shameful history is still with us… If there is any decency in the NFL, the time is now — change the mascot.”
11. Olympic Games Boycotts, Mayhem And Politicization
Since the games were re-born in 1896, the quadrennial spectacle has been used as a platform for individuals and countries to demonstrate their stance on a range of political, social and even economic issues. This has been done with boycotts, overt nationalism, violence and protest. It started with Adolf Hitler’s use of the 1936 Berlin Games to show the believed superiority of “Aryan” Germans. The first big boycott happened in 1956, when Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon boycotted in response to Israel’s invasion of Egypt, while the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland didn’t participate due to the USSR’s invasion of Hungary. In 1964, the IOC barred South Africa from participation (which wasn’t lifted until 1992) in the Tokyo Games because of Apartheid. Eight years later, eight Palestinian Black September terrorists took 11 members of the Israeli team hostage, then later murdered them, in what was later called the Munich Massacre. Lastly, the 1980 games in Moscow and the 1984 event in Los Angeles saw reciprocal boycotts. The first saw the U.S. and more than 60 other countries pull out to protest the U.S.S.R.’s invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, the Soviet Union and 14 of its allies returned the favor, boycotting the L.A. Games.
10. Colin Kaepernick Takes A Knee For Black Lives Matter
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was best known for leading his team to a Super Bowl appearance in 2013 before poor play got him relegated to thebench. However, in 2015, Kaepernick started a firestorm of controversy, and then a national movement, by refusing to stand for the national anthem during preseason NFL games. When asked by reporters why he refused to stand for the “Star Spangled Banner,” Kaepernick replied he was protesting the murder of black people at the hands of police and showing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Controversy quickly erupted, with Kaepernick’s jersey burned in the streets by self-proclaimed patriots. However, the following week, rather than simply sit during the national anthem, Kaepernick instead took a knee on the sideline in what was viewed as a more respectful form of protest. A few weeks later, football players around the NFL (and athletes in other sports) were following suit and a protest movement by taking a knee during the anthem was born.
9. Los Suns
In April 2010, the state of Arizona passed a new immigration law in an effort to stop rampant illegal immigration from Mexico. The law was passed in the Arizona State Legislature with strong bi-partisan support and was modeled on existing federal immigration statutes. However, many people in Arizona saw the law as racist and un-American, including Robert Sarver, owner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns. In response, Sarver rallied his team to make a political statement on national television. During a May 5, 2010 playoff game between the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs, Sarver had the entire team wear jerseys with the logo “Los Suns” on it. The jerseys were to both protest of the new immigration law and show solidarity with Mexican immigrants. The media reported that the entire Suns team unanimously decided to wear the jerseys. And, the game on May 5 that year had the bonus of occurring on Cinco De Mayo, a major Mexican holiday. It should be noted that some Suns fans hated the protest. President Obama specifically hailed it as “terrific.” The Los Suns jerseys made a strong statement indeed.
8. Pat Tillman Joins The Army
A political protest of a different sort occurred after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. In the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., Pat Tillman, a former Arizona State standout and then-Arizona Cardinal safety, quit a promising and lucrative career in the NFL and enlisted in the U.S. Army. The Cardinals offered Tillman a three-year extension valued at $3.6 million to stay, but he turned down the offer and joined the Army in May 2002. After serving in Iraq, Tillman became an Army Ranger in late 2003. Deployed to Afghanistan, Tillman was tragically killed in a friendly fire accident on April 22, 2004. This story illustrates a great conviction on the part of one athlete. After 9/11, Tillman thought it was more important to fight for his country than to fight on the gridiron. It was a bold personal and political statement that inspired many and still echoes to this day.
7. Brandon Marshall Campaigns For Mental Health
Many professional athletes suffer mental health problems in silence, refusing to acknowledge their issues for fear of looking weak or being stigmatized. This had led many professional athletes to delve into substance abuse and even commit suicide, either during or after their career. NFL receiver Brandon Marshall has had the courage to try and change all that in recent years. Diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in 2011, Marshall has been outspoken about his own struggles with mental illness and working hard to try to change stereotypes about people who suffer from mental health problems. As part of his advocacy, Marshall founded the nonprofit organization “Project 375” and, in 2013, he happily paid an NFL fine for wearing green cleats in honor of Mental Health Awareness Week. All his good work hasn’t overshadowed his work on the football field either. Marshall is the only NFL player to earn 1,000 receiving yards in a season for four different football teams. Impressive stuff.
6. Bill Russell Marches For Civil Rights
NBA Hall of Famer Bill Russell did it all on the court. During his tenure with the Boston Celtics in the 1950s and 60s, the big man won 11 championships as a player – a record that still stands to this day. However, Russell was also an ardent political activist during the 1960s. He campaigned for civil rights and equality for black people as hard as he played basketball. Russell participated in the 1963 March on Washington (seen below), and when renowned civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated, Bill Russell traveled to the racially charged Jackson, Mississippi to ask Medger’s brother Charlie how he could help. Russell also met several times with both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and joined each man in their protests and acts of civil disobedience. Russell said he was inspired to get involved by the racism he encountered in his own home of Boston, despite the NBA titles he helped deliver to the city. In honor of his skill on the basketball court and activism off it, Russell was given a statue in Boston in 2013.
5. Jim Brown Starts The Black Economic Union
Jim Brown is regarded as the greatest running back in NFL history. He has also been a vocal activist throughout his life. In addition to marching alongside Bill Russell in many civil rights protests in the 1960s, Jim Brown also started the Black Economic Union, which helped black professional athletes establish their own businesses after their playing careers ended. He also founded Amer-I-Can, a non-profit organization that focuses on educating high-risk African American youth. These are just some of the ways in which Brown helped to advance equality and social justice in the United States over the years. Interestingly, he was also part of one of Hollywood’s first interracial love scenes, opposite actress Raquel Welch in the 1969 movie 100 Rifles. A true renaissance man.
4. Shawn Green Respects His Jewish Faith
Shawn Green is one of the best sluggers ever in Major League Baseball. He once hit four home runs in a single game – a league record. He also drove in 100 runs four times and scored 100 runs four times. Not surprising, Green won both the Golden Glove and Silver Slugger Awards during his baseball career from 1993 to 2007. However, Green is also Jewish and devoted to his faith. So much so, that he refused to play baseball on Yom Kippur each year, which is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Instead, Green would spend Yom Kippur fasting and praying. The fact that Yom Kippur typically occurs in late September, when his team was often in the thick of a playoff race, didn’t faze him. Despite the protests of many of his teammates and fans, Green refused to pick up his bat and play on the Jewish holiday. His faith was more important to him than baseball, an important statement that your job isn’t the only thing that defines you as a person.
3. Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ Black Power Salute
It has become one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th Century, and arguably the most iconic sports image ever: two American track and field athletes stand atop the medal platform at the Olympic Games, their heads bowed, and their right hands raised to the sky, fists clenched in protest against the treatment of African Americas and in support of Black Power. It all came about at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, when sprinter Tommie Smith won the 200 m Gold medal and fellow countryman John Carlos won the Bronze. The two black athletes received their medals and took to the platform for the national anthem. As the “Star Spangled Banner” began to play, both Carlos and Smith performed the Black Power salute. While they were roundly booed when they left the platform for making a political statement, the image resonated and has had a lasting impact in the ensuring years. It is now an image that encourages resistance in the face of social and political injustice. Sports Illustrated reported in 2015 that the photograph of their protest is the most reproduced image in the history of the Olympics.
2. Muhammad Ali Refuses Army Induction
Muhammad Ali is remembered as one of the best and most beloved boxers, and athletes, in history. But the former heavyweight champion stirred controversy when he refused to be inducted in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Indeed, Ali’s refusal to join the Army was extremely controversial in 1967 considering that he was, at that time, the World Heavyweight champ. Refusing enlistment, Ali was supported in his protest by fellow athlete Bill Russell. At the time, Ali’s said his stand was based on his beliefs as a Muslim and his stated opposition to the Vietnam War. Ali was promptly arrested and later found guilty of draft evasion. He was stripped of his boxing titles and had his fighting license suspended. The now-former champ could not step into a boxing ring for three years. In 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court overruled his conviction, and in 1975 Ali regained the heavyweight title after defeating George Foreman in a fight that took place in Kinshasa, Zaire. Back in 1967, polls showed a majority of Americans disagreed with Ali’s refusal to serve in the Army. However, as the public’s opinion of the Vietnam War slowly changed in the decades that followed, Ali’s stance has come to be viewed as heroic.
1. Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson Break Baseball’s Color Barrier
Probably the greatest example of an athlete’s courage in the face of social inequality and political injustice occurred in 1946, when Brooklyn Dodgers general manager and president Branch Rickey (who was white) signed African American baseball player Jackie Robinson to a professional baseball contract. It was a pivotal moments in the history of American sports, as well as the history of the entire nation. Rickey was a former baseball player turned executive, who had been looking for a chance to reintegrate the game of baseball for years. In the euphoria that immediately followed World War II, Rickey thought the time was right and signed Robinson, effectively ending the racial segregation of professional sports. Robinson became the first African-American to play professional baseball in nearly 50 years. He debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and proved himself to be one of the finest players of his generation. Within ten years, African Americans were freely able to participate in baseball at the highest levels. Rickey’s decision came eight years ahead of Rosa Parks bus protest and tenyears before Martin Luther King appeared on the national stage. Together, Rickey and Robinson had an impact on the world of baseball, sport, and society as a whole. Their example still shines today.