By kneeling, sitting, raising fists or locking arms, athletes carry on a tradition of protest in sports.
SEAHAWKS DEFENSIVE END Michael Bennett surely never imagined, while racking up tackles on his high-school football team in Houston, that one day he’d have to defend his mother against the President of the United States.
The chaos and violence surrounding the white-nationalist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., on the weekend of Aug. 11 had gotten under Bennett’s skin.
That Friday, Americans watched throwback scenes of white guys carrying torches around a statue of the Confederate general and brutal slave owner Robert E. Lee while raging against black people and Jews as if it were 1917.
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Then on Saturday, a man who’d allegedly attended that day’s white-supremacist rally plowed his car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Among many skirmishes between the two factions that day, at least five white men with sticks beat a black man, DeAndre Harris, in a parking garage next to a city police station.
On Sunday, Aug. 13, a far-right rally in downtown Seattle also descended into fighting between participants and counterprotesters.
Keeping silent about bigotry and inequality that weekend didn’t seem like an option for anyone with a conscience.
Bennett decided to take a stand. So he sat down.
As the national anthem played before the Seahawks’ exhibition game against the Los Angeles Chargers at StubHub Center in L.A., the Seahawks stood and locked arms, but Bennett sat alone with his helmet on. Bennett’s former teammate, Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, had done the same thing the day before.
Their inspiration was former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who sparked outrage last season by kneeling during the anthem to protest racial injustice and excessive force by police. Unable to find a team that will sign him after leaving the 49ers this year, he might pay with his career.
A far more consequential outrage helps explain why so many other athletes, most of them African American, have taken Kaepernick’s lead, and put their careers on the line, by protesting during the anthem.
Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017 at 9:45 a.m.
The Washington Post found that between Aug. 14, 2016, the first day of Kaepernick’s protest, and Aug. 14, 2017, a day after Bennett sat out the anthem in the wake of Charlottesville, police killed 222 African Americans, about one-fifth of total deaths caused by police. Black people make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, black men about half of that.
Though most people killed by police in any given period are considered armed, the Post also found that unarmed African-American men are seven times more likely to die by police gunfire than are white people.
The mistreatment and racial profiling of African Americans by our official guardians of social order are a stubborn reality and a historical truth, despite genuine efforts over the years to reform policing and the justice system.
These problems predate the nation’s founding and even formal police departments, which were modeled in part on early-American slave patrols; Night Watches; and vigilante groups tasked with hunting runaway slaves, thwarting slave revolts, keeping ethnic minorities in check and punishing offenders, according to research by Victor E. Kappeler at Eastern Kentucky University.
Whether you’re talking about the campaign to integrate baseball by black journalists and activists that led to Jackie Robinson walking onto Ebbets Field as a Brooklyn Dodger in 1947 or Congress enacting Title IX in 1972, outlawing gender discrimination in federally funded education and sports programs, the interplay between sports and politics is nothing new, either.
Kaepernick, Bennett, fellow Seahawks Doug Baldwin and Richard Sherman, and others have revived a long tradition of using the level playing fields of sports to fight imbalances elsewhere.
African Americans make up 70 percent of NFL players and 90 percent of NBA players. They are the backbone of those multibillion-dollar leagues.
Today, black athletes in general are so adored by fans that even white kids and kids at heart in ZIP codes with sparse black populations wanna be like Mike in their Air Jordans, scramble for yards in a No. 3 jersey like Russell Wilson or do “the Biles” like Simone.
Yet despite living in a nation founded as a protest against oppression, Americans tend to want their sports heroes to win championships, put their hands on their hearts and keep their mouths shut, at least while on someone else’s time.
THEN PRESIDENT Donald Trump started talking about people’s mamas.
During a rowdy speech in Alabama in late September, Trump, who’d already said some of the white nationalists in Charlottesville were “fine people,” taunted NFL players who fail to stand for the anthem as “sons of bitches” who should be FIRED! (his emphasis). Fans, he said, should boycott games.
In an attempt to spar with athletes, Trump, who also has angered cops by publicly endorsing police brutality, gave a clinic in dissing people of color.
The sports world clapped back.
“You bum,” tweeted Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James, who wore an “I CAN’T BREATHE” T-shirt to protest the death of Eric Garner in 2014, and “Equality” game sneakers this season.
On Sept. 24, two days after Trump’s speech, dozens of NFL players, along with some coaches and team owners, started staging dramatic protests at games across the country to express their anger over his vulgar commentary, some of them kneeling, others linking arms in shows of solidarity with the fight for justice and unity, as the Seahawks had done at the start of the 2016 season.
Both the Seahawks and the Tennessee Titans stayed in their locker rooms to protest Trump during the anthem ceremony in Nashville on Sept. 24.
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, a white Air Force veteran and passionate Trump critic, defended protesting football players.
“There has to be an uncomfortable element in the discourse for anything to change,” Popovich told reporters. “People have to be made to feel uncomfortable, and especially white people, because we’re comfortable.”
On Trump’s S.O.B. jibe, Bennett gave a clinic in playing it cool.
“My mom was a beautiful lady and she has never been a bitch,” he tweeted.
“She did a lot for me to be in this position,” the 32-year-old told reporters. “I think she raised a great man … In this world, it’s pretty hard to raise any black man,” given the challenges around racism and inequality.
He called the outpouring of protest and solidarity in the NFL “revolutionary.”
“It didn’t matter our race, it didn’t matter our politics, it didn’t matter our religion,” he said. “We came together and united and showed that we have power as people.”
ESPN.com contributor Richard Lapchick summed up the historic nature of present-day player activism when he wrote, “I found Sept. 24 to be the most important sports day since Muhammad Ali declared he would not fight in the Vietnam War.”
HOW DID WE get here? Truth is, the story of race in America is a recurring scrimmage featuring the all-star lineup of problems ignored, grievances misconstrued, justice delayed.
This summer, basketball legend and activist Bill Russell — the first black NBA coach and the Sonics’ coach from 1973-77 — tweeted a photo of himself on bended knee while wearing the Medal of Freedom President Barack Obama awarded him in 2011.
“Proud to take a knee, and to stand tall against social injustice,” tweeted Russell, who has lived in the Seattle area since his Sonics days.
When Ali refused to be drafted 50 years ago, Russell stood up for him, too.
He joined fellow black athletes in supporting Ali in 1967 after he was stripped of his heavyweight title and passport for refusing to go fight communism in Vietnam when, he argued, black people still suffered from racism in America.
In an extraordinary black-and-white photo from their meeting in Cleveland, organized by ex-Cleveland Browns star Jim Brown, Ali sits at a table with Brown and Russell to his right and the NBA’s Lew Alcindor, now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, on his left. Other football stars of the day stand behind them, looking sharp and dead-serious in their business suits.
Like that remarkable summit of black athletes, the activism of Aug. 13; Sept. 24; and subsequent game days, including the Texans’ #TakeAKnee protest against their own boss at CenturyLink Field, was long in coming.
Kaepernick inspired other athletes from the start.
The Seattle Reign women’s soccer team stood and locked arms during the anthem at Memorial Stadium the same September night in 2016 the Seahawks locked arms across town before their season-opener. The next week, white Reign star Megan Rapinoe backed Kaepernick and knelt during the U.S. Women’s National Team’s soccer matches against Thailand and the Netherlands.
Before any of that, Serena Williams raised a fist for the Black Lives Matter movement when she won her seventh Wimbledon title. She also wrote a powerful Facebook post expressing her concerns about police brutality.
When the WNBA briefly started fining players who wore #Black Lives Matter and other protest attire that summer, the Seattle Storm’s Alysha Clark vented at league officials in a series of tweets: “Just in case you didn’t know @WNBA 70% of the WNBA is black … Just b/c we are pro #BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean we’re anti-police. We can be for BOTH!”
The harshest detractors say the protesters aren’t just anti-police but anti-military, ungrateful for the freedoms and economic uplift that pro sports has bestowed on them, traitors to the nation.
“To hell with this POS, didn’t join the military to defend the flag for some millionaire football player to disrespect it,” one critic on Twitter said of Bennett after the Aug. 13 protest.
But what’s more patriotic, Baldwin (the son of a police officer) asked on CNN, than challenging each other to live up to the American values we say we’re so proud of — like due process and equality?
“I want to make sure people understand I love the military — my father was in the military,” Bennett said of his own protests. “I love hot dogs like any other American. I love football like any other American. But I don’t love segregation, I don’t love riots, I don’t love oppression.”
Perhaps the sweetest validation for sitting out the anthem came from John Middlemas, a white, 97-year-old World War II veteran in Missouri who joined the #TakeAKnee movement after Trump’s speech.
“Those kids have every right to protest,” he told his family, who tweeted a picture of Middlemas kneeling in his backyard.
JUST MORE THAN an hour after the Seahawks-Chargers game in August, 50-year-old Patrick Harmon was riding his bicycle down a street in Salt Lake City when police say they stopped him for crossing multiple lanes and riding without a taillight.
Bodycam footage shows Harmon, an African American, tearful but cooperating as police tell him about outstanding warrants for his arrest. As they try to handcuff him, he takes off running.
Officers say Harmon turned and threatened to cut them with a knife as he ran.
The video shows Harmon running, turning slightly, then continuing with his back to the officers. One of the pursuing officers yells, “I’ll (expletive) shoot you,” and immediately fires three rounds at Harmon. A second officer simultaneously Tasers him.
Officers handcuff Harmon as he groans on the ground. The incident lasts seven seconds.
Harmon died later from his wounds.
Prosecutors declined to charge any of the officers, saying deadly force was justified. The FBI has been asked to review the shooting and the investigation’s finding.
David Meltzer, CEO of Sports 1 Marketing in California, which was co-founded by former Seahawks quarterback Warren Moon, says his firm advises athlete clients who are passionate about a hot-button issue to capitalize on their star power by translating their frustrations into positive actions that fans can rally around.
Bennett, Baldwin and other Seahawks have done plenty of that, addressing concerns with league and elected officials; promoting economic development, education and leadership in vulnerable communities; and working with police to improve training and de-escalation practices.
Bennett and journalist Dave Zirin are co-writing a book about “the NFL, racism, sexism, intersectionality and athletes being no longer silenced.”
A year ago, Bennett, Baldwin and teammate Cliff Avril spoke to me for a different story about the contrast between their celebrity status when dressed in Seahawks team gear and the racial realities awaiting them when the uniforms come off.
Fighting unfairness and excess in law enforcement isn’t just a cause for them. They see themselves reflected in those enduring disparities and viral videos.
Thirteen days after the Harmon shooting, Bennett’s concerns seemed to bear out during a trip to Las Vegas, where he watched Floyd Mayweather Jr. TKO Conor McGregor in the 10th round at T-Mobile Arena.
In an account he posted to Twitter, Bennett says that as he headed to his hotel, he and others heard what sounded like gunshots. As Bennett ran away, police chased and detained him.
“A police officer ordered me to get on the ground,” he wrote. “As I laid on the ground, complying with his commands to not move, he placed his gun near my head and warned me that if I moved he would ‘blow my (expletive) head off.’
“All I could think of was, ‘I’m going to die for no other reason than I am black and my skin color is somehow a threat.’ My life flashed before my eyes as I thought of my girls. Would I ever play with them again? Or watch them have kids? Or be able to kiss my wife again and tell her I love her?”
No evidence of a shooting was found. Officers soon learned Bennett’s identity and released him.
“I have always held a strong conviction that protesting or standing up for justice is just simply the right thing to do,” Bennett wrote in his post. “This fact is unequivocally, without question why before every game, I sit during the national anthem — because equality doesn’t live in this country and no matter how much money you make, what job title you have, or how much you give, when you are seen as a ‘Nigger,’ you will be treated that way.”
Officials strongly defended their actions and released video they say backs them up.
HISTORY WILL TAKE the side of the protesters.
Perhaps the most iconic demonstration against racial injustice by American athletes happened at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, when sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos donned black-leather gloves, raised their fists in the Black Power salute and bowed their heads during the national anthem after they won gold and bronze in the 200-meter dash.
Smith and Carlos were stripped of their medals, kicked out of the Olympic Village, and subjected to vilification and death threats by their countrymen.
Then little-known sports writer Brent Musburger called Smith and Carlos “black-skinned Stormtroopers,” a reference to the Nazis, in a newspaper essay.
Forty years on, Smith and Carlos received Arthur Ashe Courage Awards at the ESPYs in 2008 for their activism. Ashe, the late pioneering black tennis champion, was also an activist, speaking out against racial apartheid in South Africa.
“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic,” Ashe once explained. “It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”
Three people in that famous Ali picture from 1967 — Abdul-Jabbar, Russell and Brown — received Sports Illustrated’s 2016 Muhammad Ali Legacy Award largely because of their social activism. Abdul-Jabbar also received a Medal of Freedom from Obama that year.
Kaepernick is GQ’s 2017 “Citizen of the Year.”
We talk about our favorite teams using the pronoun “we,” rather than “they.” During games, it’s “us” versus “them.”
It comes as a shock, then, when athletes, who are so good at helping us escape into a tribal frenzy and unify around the common cause of victory, call time with a gesture that looks like prayer but can come across as blasphemy.
Suddenly, it’s not a clear-cut matter of “us” vs. “them,” but right vs. wrong — and rights vs. wrongs.
Suddenly, our superheroes are mere mortals, bothered and fed-up, pleading for their country to pick up the ball.