The American Historian

No More Games: Understanding the Latest Wave of Athletic Activism

Amira Rose Davis

Natasha Cloud and the Washington Mystics were ready for a repeat. The defending Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) champions were eager to defend their title heading into the 2020 season. Then came COVID-19. With the start of the season delayed and Cloud sitting at home, another pandemic reared its head. The murders of Ahmad Aubrey, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor re-ignited the Movement for Black Lives. Protesters donned masks and poured into the street to protest racism and police brutality. Cloud was one of them. Within weeks the outspoken guard had decided. She would not play basketball this year: "I have a responsibility to myself, to my community and to my future children to fight for something that is much bigger than myself and the game of basketball,” Cloud said in a statement, “I will instead continue the fight for social reform, because until Black lives matter, all lives can't matter."[1]

Cloud is one of many athletes speaking up and out during this moment. She is part of what Howard Bryant terms “the heritage,” the long history of Black athletes symbolically and vocally using their platform to protest societal racism and police brutality.[2] While Bryant traces this heritage back to Paul Roberson in the 1950s, the inherently political nature of sports and meanings projected onto Black athletic bodies date back much further. Jack Johnson and the feverish search for the “great white hope” to defeat him at the beginning of the twentieth century are an early indication that sports were never just games. The sporting sphere was, and remains, a highly visible, hotly contested space where Black athletic successes have been made to carry meanings about race, equality, gender, and citizenship.

Four years ago, when Colin Kaepernick took a knee in protest of police brutality, many observers eagerly drew a straight line from the protest to Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s medal stand protest at the 1968 Olympics. From raised fist to bent knee, a new chapter of Black athletes were in revolt. Of course, that line is much blurrier and winding then a direct shot from Smith and Carlos to Kaepernick.

This history of athletic activism must stretch further to include Roberson. It must include Jackie Robinson beyond 1947, the Robinson who penned articles against police brutality and said “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world…I never had it made.”[3] The weaving line must include overlooked Black women such as Rose Robinson who refused to be a political pawn as a goodwill ambassador, or Wyomia Tyus who wore black shorts and also raised her fist in 1968.[4]

If we expand our highly gendered, narrow definition of athletic activism—and we should—we can include women such as Venus Williams, who fought for pay equity at Wimbledon. Early battles for equal pay, resources, and opportunity undergird the current equal pay push from U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) or Olympians such as Allison Felix and Alysia Montano who have spoken out against endorsement deals that punish pregnancy and jeopardize the long-term careers of women athletes. 

The line also curves around Craig Hodges, Mahmood Abdul-Rauf, and Toni Smith-Thompson, Black athletes whose outspokenness left them blackballed and disposable in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the platform was there but the movement was not.  

It was the murder of Trayvon Martin that ushered in this chapter of athletic activism, what Dr. Harry Edwards has called the “fourth wave.”[5] Trayvon’s death galvanized many, stirring an entire generation and prompting the NBA’s biggest star, LeBron James, to lead his team in donning hoodies in remembrance of the boy who could be their son, who could have been them.

As cameras captured more Black death, the images, the names, and the hashtags swirled into the foundation of and fueled a new movement. Black athletes seemed to awaken as well. The Minnesota Lynx were early vanguards of the new athletic activism. They donned black shirts in protest and held press conferences where they only would field questions on police brutality. Multiple athletes wore “I can’t breathe” shirts after the murder of Eric Garner, and many members of the National Football League’s (NFL) St. Louis Rams came out for a game in a “hands up, don’t shoot” pose in tribute to Mike Brown.

However, the current iteration of Black athlete activism started when Kaepernick’s kneeling was paired with Donald Trump’s insurgent presidential campaign that seized upon the moment to chastise the spoiled, ungrateful “sons of bitches” who didn’t know their place in this country. They were there to entertain, to run and jump, shuck and jive, to just “shut up and dribble.”[6] For the last four years, the resurgence of athletic activism has been like a simmering pot. That pot has now boiled over.

If we borrow Dr. Edwards’ wave metaphor, this current moment is both reminiscent of earlier activism and unlike anything we have ever seen. It’s a tidal wave. The real shift has come when individual protests morphed into collective action and mobilization of Black athletic labor solidarity. This is particularly true at the college ranks where the second revolt of Black college athletes is occurring.

College Sports: Labor, Power, Revolt 

The first revolt of Black college athletes occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By the end of the 1960s, college students around the country were protesting on campus, pushing back against authority, demanding curriculum changes, and speaking out against the Vietnam War and injustice. Coaches, athletic directors, and journalist were quick to blame the “new militants demanding that athletes serve as symbols in the black struggle,” as one Sports Illustrated writer put it. However, Black college athletes understood themselves as more than symbols and that they had grievances of their own to raise. 

During the 1950s, the integration of college sports had resulted in a growing number of Black players on teams at predominately white schools, and Black athletes were growing dissatisfied with their conditional acceptance and isolation on campuses. Schools had no problem utilizing Black athletic talent but showed little to no desire to integrate other parts of the athletic departments or the larger university. In many cases, the fear of Black men being in proximity to white women resulted in Black athletes housed far from campus, in an isolated, highly-policed, separate dorm. Often athletes said that the first message they received when they arrived on campus was to “stay away from white woman”.[7]

At Oregon State, a Black player balked at facial hair requirements on the team, insisting that his hair was cultural and that the dress codes were racist. When he was dismissed from the team, Black players and students boycotted classes and many left the university.[8] Athletes across the country pushed back at the control coaches had, which many felt was overreaching and discriminatory. At University of California, Berkeley, fourteen football players refused to participate in spring practices or team activities until they had more say in the governance of the team. Their desire to have input in team decisions stemmed in part from the racist determinations of “skilled” positions resulting in Black players being “stacked” in certain positions. One of the biggest demands of protesting players was the insistence on Black coaches. 

At a number of schools, Black athletes paired concerns about athletics with larger institutional critiques, especially around the lack of commitment for integration beyond the playing field. At Michigan State, thirty-eight athletes threatened a boycott across all sports, demanding that the university hire Black coaches, professors, and academic counselors. This demand was echoed by athletes at Iowa, Syracuse, Arizona State, University of Washington, University of Kansas, and Marquette University.[9]

Sometimes the protest emerged from a particular incident. A small group of Black high school students were verbally abused while touring colleges in Washington. Upon learning of this incident, six Black football players at Washington State University refused to play until an apology was made. Track athletes at University of Texas-El Paso refused to participate in a meet against Birmingham Young University due to the church’s racist views and policies towards Black people. Similarly, in 1969, fourteen players at the University of Wyoming attempted to wear black armbands during their football game against BYU. However, all fourteen players were dismissed from the team by Coach Lloyd Eaton and instead watched as fans poured into the stadium wearing yellow armbands proudly displaying “EATON” in support of the coach. 

The backlash against the “Black 14” was but one instance illustrating the precarity of athletic activism. The 14 insisted on their constitutional right of speech, but their failed lawsuit and dismissal sent a clear message about where power was concentrated in college sports. In Iowa, Black athletes who were removed from the team for voicing concerns about their treatment had to apologize and beg their way back on—but not before being subjected to a vote from their white teammates to see if they would be welcomed back. In 1969, when Syracuse players demanded a Black coach, the school relented, but also released all of the players. In the 1970-1971 season, Syracuse had one Black coach and zero Black players. 

The swift and severe backlash reveals much about the power structure in college sports. The disposability of Black athletic labor, the control of coaches and athletic departments, and the corrupt governance of the NCAA were all on display. 

In the last few decades, the college sports industrial complex has grown with TV deals, new stadiums, corporate sponsorships, and ballooning salaries for everyone except the players. College sports is now a billion-dollar industry built on the back of unpaid labor that is disproportionally Black. While the NCAA athletic departments and coaches have done everything possible to consolidate and retain their power, it is clear that a little labor solidary by athletes seizes the power and threatens the entire system.

In 2015 football players at the University of Missouri joined with Black campus activists and refused to play until the school’s president resigned. Despite months of protests and mounting calls for the president’s removal due to his mishandling of a number of racist incidents on campus, very little movement had been made. Within forty-eight hours of the football team’s declaration, President Tim Wolfe stepped down. With one million dollars on the line if the team did not play and the inability to dismiss the entire team for their protest, the school relented. Northwestern football players’ attempt at unionization and a boycott at Grambling have also drawn on the power of labor solidarity. Yet, there was never a larger national movement—until now.  

The disruption of sports and the rising revolt has laid bare the unjust system. As schools rushed to put out Black Lives Matter statements while simultaneously risking the health of athletes by refusing to cancel seasons, Black athletes across sports have risen up and made demands. The recent statement from a unified group of Pac-12 athletes explicitly cite their concerns about health and safety, racial and economic justice, and indicates their refusal to play if they are not addressed. 

Black college athletes today, like their predecessors, are recognizing their platform and using it to give space to larger issues as well as to address their own concerns, such as football player Kylin Hill’s pivotal role in getting the Mississippi State University flag changed. Black women athletes are not just involved in this generation of college revolts but are at the forefront. Women such Asia Todd, who transferred from Liberty University in protest of the university’s structural racism, or Anna Cockrell and Chrissy Carr, who have lead efforts to form united Black athlete organizations at the University of Southern California and Kansas State University respectively, are just some examples of women leading protests. In the decades since the first revolts, an entire, exploitative, billion-dollar system has been built on their backs; we are about to see what happens when Black college athletes stand up.[10]

Professional Sports, Performative Protest and the Dangers of Sportwashing

At the professional level, the number of vocal athletes is steadily increasing. The current moment has given athletes, especially those with more precarious positions, good cover to speak without as much fear of retribution or consequence as before. This is helped along by sporting organizations joining the cooperate Black Lives Matter chorus. 

The way and the extent to which leagues and individual teams have engaged in performative politics is fairly unprecedented. One on hand, the increased scrutiny and outspokenness of athletes and lay observers alike has resulted in some change. After decades of Native protests, the Washington Football team has finally dropped the racial slur from their name. NASCAR has finally banned confederate flags. And while enforcement will be the next test, it is a testament to the particularities of now. 

On the other hand, the performative gestures also ring hallow, at times diluting the protests and possibilities of change. The NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, released multiple videos decrying racism and not once could he bring himself to name the blackballed quarterback (Kaepernick) who knelt before kneeling was safe. USA Track and Field put out a statement saying that Black lives matter and police brutality was awful, while Gwen Berry, a Black hammer thrower who protested on the medal stand last year, was still on probation for saying the same thing. 

While the widespread corporate response may be new, athletes are having conversation fairly reminiscent of those had in the late 1960s. Namely, should they boycott their respective seasons, or should they play? In 1967, leading up the 1968 Olympic Games, the Olympic Project for Human Rights posed the same questions to Black athletes training for the Olympic games. Similar to now, the response varied widely. For some, not playing was tantamount to giving up the very platform that gave them a voice. Others were unwilling to sacrifice their future and years of hard work. Those athletes who advocated boycotting believed there was more power in withholding the labor and dedicating time and effort to a social cause with the world watching.[11]

As Black athletes ponder that same question now, many Black women athletes are leading with decisive action. Historically overlooked and perpetually ignored, Black women athletes have their own long history of engaged activism, a tradition Maya Moore is upholding by stepping away from basketball to work on criminal justice reform. The WNBA, in general, continues to be leaders, with many women opting out of playing to remain focused on social justice and with those who remain dedicating the entire season to #Sayhername in recognition of Breonna Taylor and state-sanctioned violence against Black women. 

Professional basketball player Maya Moore, seen here speaking at the Marshall Project in Washington, D.C., has stepped away from the game to focus on criminal justice reform. Photo by Lorie Shaull. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

Yet we can see power and production of history in real time. Black women are being overlooked even as we tell the current tale of athletic activism. This tidal wave is not nearly as vast and impactful if Black women athletes and their activism are erased from it. The first few waves of athletic activism lack a robust consideration of the ways Black women used their platform and identity as athletes to push for change. 

Lastly, the current moment also reminds us of the dangers of sportwashing and simplistic narratives. Many Major League Baseball teams sent out their Black Lives Matter Statement with a picture or reference to Jackie Robinson. These quotes and images freeze Robinson in 1947, using his breaking of the color line as a harmonious narrative about bravery and change. Robinson’s later speeches, articles, and actions are rarely mentioned. His activism has been blunted and turned into inspirational fodder for tweets that are superficially engaging with current athletic activism. 

As sports have begun to return, the positioning of them as the great unifier threatens the specificity and potency of the activism from Black athletes occurring right now. Perhaps no better example of this is when NASCAR united behind Black driver Bubba Wallace in a show of solidarity and repudiation of racism. One commenter remarked “One day we will all wear 43,” in reference to Wallace’s car number and as a nod to the way baseball uses 42 to acknowledge Robinson. In fifty years, will history remember Wallace in this frozen image of unity? Or will they remember his words and the critique of the larger systemic issues? Will his image, beside his Black Lives Matter car, join the posters on dormitory walls next to Kaepernick kneeling and Smith and Carlos’s raised fist? 

However, the return of sports inside insulated “bubbles” and “Wubbles” has also given athletes space to continue the conversation, to read and speak with each other, and to find ways to maintain a focus on the movement despite returning to play. These league-approved gestures represent a familiar pattern of performative gestures. From courts painted with #BlackLivesMatter to jerseys sporting random words such as “equality,” and lots of kneeling. The WNBA, however, paired these gestures with a steadfast resolution to #SayHerName, highlighted the fight for justice for Breonna Taylor, and committed to mobilizing the vote for the political opponent of the racist owner of the Atlanta Dream.[12]

Yet, there are shades of new possibilities. The August 23 police shooting of Jacob Blake fanned the flames of athletic protest once again. The Milwaukee Bucks, the closest NBA to Kenosha, Wisconsin where Blake was shot by the police, refused to take the court. Their refusal led to a widespread wildcat strike across the NBA. The WNBA, MLB, MLS, and even the NHL cancelled games. Tennis Champ Naomi Osaka, pulled out of a tennis tournament saying “Before I am an athlete, I am a Black woman and as a Black woman, I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need attention, rather than watching me play tennis." It was a glimpse of the power of labor resistance and the potency of athletic labor solidarity.[13]

The waves of athletic activism have come and gone. This wave seems larger, stronger, and perhaps with more staying power. It is certainly hard to pin a wave upon the sand, but its high tide right now, and athletic revolt seems ripe with unprecedented possibilities. 

Author

Amira Rose Davis is an Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies at Penn State University where she studies the intersection of race, gender, sports, and politics. She is currently finishing up her first book, 'Can't Eat a Medal': The Lives and Labors of Black Women Athletes in the Age of Jim Crow. Davis is also the co-host of the sports podcast, Burn It All Down.

Notes

[1]Natasha Cloud, “Your Silence is a Knee on my Neck,” The Players' Tribune, May 30th, 2020.

[2]Howard Bryant, The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism (2018), 33.

[3]Jackie Robinson, “Police Power Abuse,” New Journal and Guide, Aug. 28 1965, p. A14; Jackie Robinson, I never Had it Made, (1972), xxiv

[4]Amira Rose Davis, “Sixty Years Ago She Refused to Stand for the Anthem,” Zora, Oct. 2019; Wyomia Tyus and Elizabeth Terzakis, Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story (2018).

[5]Dr. Edwards introduced the “waves” concept in a NASSS conference keynote in 2016. It is echoed in the 20th anniversary preface to his seminal text: Harry Edwards, The Revolt of the Black Athlete: 50th Anniversary Edition (2017).

[6]Martenzie Johnson, “What Laura Ingraham’s Attack on LeBron James Really Means,” The Undefeated, Feb. 16, 2018.

[7]“College Very Lonely Place for Negro Athletes,” Philadelphia Tribune, July 9 1968, 3.

[8]John Underwood, “The Desperate Coach,” Sports Illustrated, Aug. 25 1969, 66.

[9]Richard Stone, “Revolt in Sports” The Wall Street Journal, June 19, 1968; Anthony Ripley, “Irate Athletes Stir Campus Tension,” New York Times, Nov. 16 1969: “Black Athletes ‘Get Involved’” Chicago Defender, Dec. 23 1969, 23.

[10]Taylor Branch, “The Shame of College Sports,” The Atlantic, October 2011.

[11]For two examples see Tommie Smith, “Why Negroes Should Boycott,” Sport, March 1968, 40-41, 68: Ralph Boston, “Why They Should Not,” Sport, March 1968, 42-43, 68-69.

[12]Sean Hurd, “The WNBA is Determind to Keep Saying her Name,” The Undefeated, July 2020.

[13]Howard Bryant, “The Reality of Black Pain is Breaking Sports’ Status Quo,” ESPN, August 2020.