Athletes and activism: The long, defiant history of sports protests
From Ali to Althea Gibson and Bill Russell to LeBron, players have used their platform to spotlight injustice and chosen ceremonial moments to take a stand
The history of sports protests goes deep. Back, way back, on Jan. 13, 532 A.D., at the chariot races in Constantinople, rival drivers from the Blues and Greens teams asked the emperor Justinian to pardon two of their followers who had been condemned to die. His refusal led to the Nika Revolt, six weeks of rioting that resulted in the deaths of 30,000 people.
So taking a knee during the national anthem isn’t exactly unprecedented, or nearly as calamitous. Athletes in modern times have often been moved to protest conditions, to demonstrate that they are citizens of conscience by speaking truth to power. The following timeline of sports protests begins in 1883 and ends with the crescendo of events leading up to Colin Kaepernick taking a knee in 2016.
There have been all sorts of protests about race, gender, money and nationality in American and Olympic sports history, but they all have this in common: the constant struggle for justice, supported by the U.S. Constitution, which turns 230 on March 4.
1883: A Man Named Moses
On Aug. 10, 1883, Cap Anson, the owner-manager-first baseman of the Chicago White Sox, took his team to Toledo, Ohio, to play an exhibition game. He demanded that the Blue Stockings not play Moses Fleetwood Walker, the African-American catcher. Walker wasn’t going to play anyway because he was injured, but when informed of Anson’s demand, Toledo manager Charlie Morton took a stand and called his bluff, starting Walker in right field. Said Anson, “We’ll play this here game, but won’t play never no more with the n—–.” Toledo joined the American Association the next year, and on May 1, 1884, Walker became the first African-American major leaguer when he took the field against Louisville. Three years later, Anson finally got his way when owners enacted a rule barring black players from professional baseball.
1890: Force Play
John Montgomery Ward is the only player in the Hall of Fame with 2,000 hits and 100 wins. He also later started a major department chain. But his impact on the business of baseball was huge as well. In the late 1880s, players bridled at the salaries they were being paid under the National League’s reserve clause. Led by Ward, they organized a new league for the 1890 season and got many of the most talented players to sign on. The Players League lasted only one year because it butted heads in the same cities as the National League, but it had far more future Hall of Famers. And it provided a road map that was still useful a century later.
1906: Erin Go Bragh
Peter O’Connor, an Irish long jumper, finished second in the 1906 Games in Athens but first in the history of Olympic flag protests. He had gone to Greece believing he was representing Ireland, but when he got there, he was told there would be no Irish team, just one from Great Britain. So as the Union Jack was raised for him, he scaled the flagpole as teammate Con Leahy stood guard at the base. When he reached the top, he unfurled the green Irish flag he had smuggled onto the track. Emblazoned with a gold harp, shamrocks and the words “Erin Go Bragh,” the flag had an entirely different meaning.
1916: A Football Stance
Long before he became a famous actor, singer and firebrand, Paul Robeson was a student trying out for the Rutgers football team. He made the team after enduring a brutal initiation rite in intrasquad scrimmages, but there was still the matter of what other teams might do when faced with a 6-foot-2, 210-pound black man on the other side. For its Oct. 14, 1916, game at Rutgers, Washington and Lee asked coach Foster Sanford to bench him, and Sanford complied, even though the score ended in a 13-13 tie. Robeson later told a friend that the benching was “a wound that never healed.” But after his teammates voiced their objections, Sanford had a change of heart, and when West Virginia made the same request a month later, he refused. Robeson made a game-saving tackle to preserve a 0-0 tie and earned this accolade from Mountaineers coach Mont McIntire: “Guts! He had nothing else but. Why, that colored boy’s legs were so gashed and bruised that his skin peeled off when he was removing his stockings.”
1926: Against The Current
On Aug. 6, 1926, 19-year-old Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel. It took her 14 hours, 34 minutes and a change of coaches — the first one actually tried to sabotage her initial effort. In a decade in which female athletes emerged to challenge stereotypes, Ederle’s feat was the signal accomplishment. Legend has it that her hearing was affected by the Channel swim. She spent much of her long life — she died in 2014 at age 98 — teaching deaf children how to swim.
1936: Sweeping For Silver
The 1936 Berlin Games forced American athletes to decide how best to object to Adolf Hitler’s Aryan agenda. Harvard track star Milton Green, fencer Albert Wolff of France and basketball players from Long Island University chose not to participate in protest of the virulent anti-Semitism in Germany. On the other hand, track stars Jesse Owens and Mack Robinson elected to compete to put a lie to Hitler’s precepts of a master race.
Owens won four gold medals, of course, infuriating Hitler. Robinson, the older brother of future sports pioneer Jackie Robinson, finished second in the 200 meters behind Owens. What was the silver medal worth? Robinson found out it wasn’t worth much — the only job that he could find when he returned was as a street sweeper in his hometown of Pasadena, California.
In a silent but eloquent protest, Robinson wore his Olympic jacket while working in a white neighborhood during the evenings. The response from residents also said a lot about America — they got the cops to make him take off the jacket.
1936: Ol’ Man River
Twenty years after teaching the West Virginia football team a lesson, Robeson gave mainstream America a more profound one by singing “Ol’ Man River” in the movie Show Boat. The music was by Jerome Kern, the lyrics were by Oscar Hammerstein II and the film was directed by James Whale, but it’s the performance by Robeson that still strikes the chord of injustice.
1940: The Bates Seven
The University of Missouri asked that New York University not use African-American fullback Leonard Bates in a November 1940 football game, and NYU acceded to the request. After NYU players brought the matter up at a student council meeting, seven students decided to protest the university’s complicity in discrimination against black athletes … and were suspended for three months in 1941. Sixty years later, NYU honored them for their commitment to social justice.
1947: A Tree Grows In Brooklyn
Some might argue that the Brooklyn Dodgers’ decision to integrate baseball wasn’t a protest. But in retrospect, this act of courage by Jackie Robinson and of defiance by general manager Branch Rickey may have been the single most successful demonstration for racial equality in American history.
Robinson had to walk through a cauldron of hatred to show he belonged and to open the doors for African-Americans in every walk of life.
1950: Finally Open
No African-American had ever competed in the US Open, but Florida A&M’s Althea Gibson was clearly worthy of an invitation. As the tennis world waited to see if the country club set at the United States Lawn Tennis Association would extend one, four-time national champion Alice Marble weighed in with a letter that appeared in the July 1950 issue of American Lawn Tennis magazine. Noting that a committee member had told her Gibson would be judged on her performance in invitational tournaments, to which she wasn’t being invited, Marble wrote:
“Miss Gibson is over a very cunningly wrought barrel. … She is not being judged by the yardstick of ability, but by the fact that her pigmentation is somewhat different. She is a fellow tennis player, and, as such, deserving of the chance to prove herself.”
The letter rocked the tennis world and opened the door for Gibson. At the US Open that September, she had to face Louise Brough, the reigning Wimbledon champion, as hecklers in the grandstand shouted, “Knock her out of there!” and “Beat the n—–!” Gibson kept her poise and might have won had a thunderstorm not given Brough a much-needed respite. After the match ended with Brough winning the third set 9-7, there was no denying that Gibson belonged.
1958: March Time
Robinson was not satisfied with opening the doors for Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Althea Gibson. Ignoring the advice of sportswriters who thought he should know his place, Robinson also became a civil rights leader, organizing the Youth March for Integrated Schools with Martin Luther King Jr. Their goal was to get a thousand students, black and white, to march on the Lincoln Memorial. The protest drew 10,000.
1961: Serving Notice
While in Lexington, Kentucky, for an exhibition before the 1961-62 season, Bill Russell and the other black members of the Boston Celtics were refused service at a restaurant. They boycotted the game, a groundbreaking statement at a time when blacks were still expected not to complain publicly about discrimination. Russell became an outspoken advocate for integration — after the 1963 assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, he flew down to Jackson to conduct integrated basketball camps.
1965: Hard Time In The Big Easy
The AFL All-Star Game was scheduled to be played in New Orleans at Tulane Stadium on Jan. 16, 1965. But when the 21 black players arrived in the city, they were met with hostility and denials of service — they couldn’t even get cab rides from the airport. With the support of white AFL stars such as Buffalo quarterback Jack Kemp, a future Republican candidate for vice president, and San Diego offensive tackle Ron Mix, the players told AFL commissioner Joe Foss that they would not play in New Orleans. So the game was moved to Houston.
1967: Marathon Woman
No women had been allowed to compete in the 70 years of the Boston Marathon. But after seeing no such restriction in the race rules and signing in as K.V. Switzer, seasoned runner Kathrine “Kathy” Switzer was issued an official number. Two miles into the race, Boston Marathon official Jock Semple jumped off the press bus to pull her off the course — but couldn’t because of her determination. Her time of 4 hours, 20 minutes wouldn’t have set a record … except that it did.
1967: True Stripes
On July 23, 1967, Willie Horton hit a home run and single to lead the Detroit Tigers to a 7-3 victory over the New York Yankees. But out on the streets, the citizens of Detroit were rioting, and Horton, who grew up in the Motor City, believed he had to do something. So he walked out of the stadium in his uniform and headed to his old neighborhood at 12th Street and Clairmount Avenue to try to quell the riots.
1967: Wake The Giants
On June 4, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor and other prominent black athletes met in Cleveland in a show of support for Muhammad Ali, who had refused induction into the U.S. Army as a conscientious objector. Two weeks later, he was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison and stripped of his heavyweight title.
But Ali counter punched in the courts as others fought with him. Alcindor, in particular, emerged as a force for change. The NCAA basketball rules committee had just taken the dunk away from Alcindor and UCLA. The committee said it was to restore competitive balance, but the ban clearly had a target. “To me, the new no-dunk rule smacks a little of discrimination,” Alcindor told the Chicago Defender. “Most of the people who dunk are black athletes.”
1968: Fists of Fury
The 200-meter final at the Mexico City Games became as fraught with significance as the 200 meters final at the 1936 Berlin Games. After Tommie Smith won gold and John Carlos silver, they stepped onto the podium shoeless but decked out in black socks and gloves. Then they raised their fists above their bowed heads to silently protest racial discrimination.
In 1889, John Montgomery Ward challenged baseball’s reserve clause. Eighty years later, when the Cardinals traded All-Star center fielder Curt Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies, Flood filed an antitrust suit against MLB, saying that being owned by a baseball team was akin to “being a slave 100 years ago.” He took the case all the way to the Supreme Court in 1972, sacrificing the last years of his career, and though he lost the case, he helped gain economic freedom for the next generation of players.
1970: Orange Alert
They came to be known as the Syracuse 8, but there were actually nine African-Americans on the Syracuse football team who decided to sit out the 1970 season in an effort to bring racial equality to a program that had produced Pro Football Hall of Famers Jim Brown and John Mackey and 1961 Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis.
Among their demands were better medical care and stronger academic support for all student-athletes, fair intrasquad competition and the integration of the coaching staff. Head coach Ben Schwartzwalder actually joked about finding a black assistant: “I looked for one on the way home, and I looked for one on the way back to coaching, and I couldn’t find any.”
The nine players, some of whom could’ve played in the NFL, turned their focus to academics, and their protest galvanized the faculty and brought about grudging changes to the football program. In 2006, Syracuse gave the group the Chancellor’s Medal … and the letterman jackets they should have been given 36 years before.
1972: Strike One
Eighty-two years after the first player revolt, Major League Baseball found itself in a pickle. The owners thought they had the upper hand, but the players had a new champion in Marvin Miller. All they really wanted was an increase in pension benefits to keep pace with inflation, but the owners wouldn’t budge. So, backed by a near-unanimous vote of the 48 player reps, they walked out, and baseball lost 86 games and a good portion of its fan base — who did the players think they were?
The only beneficiaries were the Detroit Tigers, who nipped the Boston Red Sox by a half-game because the unbalanced schedule gave them one more.
1972: Center of Attention
On May 9, 1972, fresh from UCLA’s undefeated college basketball season, center Bill Walton took part in a large demonstration on the Westwood campus to protest President Richard Nixon’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam. Backed by the Students for a Democratic Society, more than 1,000 demonstrators demanded that classes be shut down, cut down both California and U.S. colors from flagpoles and marched to the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Veteran Avenue to stage a sit-in. Told by police that it would be an unlawful assembly, the crowd calmly dispersed. Walton was one of the last 50 students who sat at the intersection.
1972: Appeal Play
Honored before Game 2 of the World Series in Cincinnati, Jackie Robinson thanked the crowd, then took the opportunity to point out that something was missing in baseball: “I am going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I see a black face managing in baseball.” Robinson died nine days later, but two years to the day after he said those words, Frank Robinson was hired as the manager of the Cleveland Indians.
1973: O Say Can You See
The eight members of the all-black cheerleading squad for Brown refused to stand for the national anthem before a March 8, 1973, game with Providence College, saying the flag no longer represented them. The Providence City Council censured the women and denounced the university, but Brown’s president, Donald Hornig, defended them, citing their right to free expression.
1973: Cape of Good Hope
Because of its apartheid policies, South Africa was boycotted by the international sports community. Tennis great Arthur Ashe decided to put a different spin on the resistance by offering to go to South Africa to play. In 1973, on his third attempt, he was finally granted a visa. Some labeled him an “Uncle Tom” for traveling there, but unbeknownst to his critics, Ashe negotiated with the government to integrate seating at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, where he was playing. The black fans who saw him win the doubles title there called him “Sipho,” which is Xhosa for “gift from God.”
1973: Battle of the Sexes
1973 was also the year in which Billie Jean King brought equality to women’s tennis. In June, she organized the Women’s Tennis Association. Soon thereafter, she threatened to lead a boycott of the US Open if the prize money for winning the finals was not the same for men and women: $25,000. And in September she played Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes,” easily beating the former men’s champion to make her point.
1976: Title IX
Two-time Olympic rower Chris Ernst led 18 of her teammates in a dramatic protest against Yale University’s lack of athletic facilities for women. They marched into the office of the women’s athletic director, read a statement, then took off to their tops to reveal “Title IX” written in blue marker on their backs and sternums.
Among the indignities they faced at Yale was having to wait on the bus at the boathouse while the less successful men’s team showered first — there was no hot water in the trailer showers they were given. After a story about the protest appeared in The New York Times, it was the Yale administration that got into hot water.
Athletes were dragged into a protest called by one man for an entire nation: On March 21, 1980, President Jimmy Carter announced that the United States would be boycotting the Olympics in Moscow. The Soviet Union had failed to heed Carter’s demand that it withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, so he refused to play their games. While Canada, Japan and West Germany joined the U.S., other allies such as Great Britain, France and Greece decided to go. American Olympians, who were threatened with the loss of their passports if they competed as individuals, weren’t the only ones left holding the bag. NBC took a financial bath.
1982: Coming Out In Numbers
After finishing sixth in the decathlon at the 1968 Mexico City Games, Tom Waddell became a physician and gay rights advocate in San Francisco. After joining a gay bowling league, Waddell decided to organize a gay Olympics in San Francisco that began on Aug. 28, 1982, with Tina Turner singing the national anthem. The International Olympic Committee sued to have Waddell remove the word “Olympics” from the event, but the competition, renamed the Gay Games, was a resounding success. Although Waddell would die of AIDS in 1987, his brainchild continues to thrive every four years.
1982: Pass Interference
After three previous strikes ended in the preseason, the NFL players finally succeeded in causing the cancellation of actual games. They wanted a wage scale based upon 55 percent of gross revenues, and the owners would not budge. So, for seven weeks, the NFL went dark as the players staged a pair of “All-Star Games” and NBC picked up the rights to Canadian Football League games from ESPN. When the two sides reached agreement on a five-year deal, they mounted a nine-game schedule for each team that culminated in a Super Bowl “tournament” involving 16 teams. The Super Bowl champs were the Washington Redskins, with Joe Theismann at quarterback.
1989: He Had The Floor
On Jan. 14, 1989, Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson walked off the court before a home game against Boston College. He was protesting a new NCAA rule, Proposition 42, that denied scholarships to freshmen who were academically ineligible. “If these kids today don’t get that opportunity, who are they going to look to? I had to reassure myself I was doing the right thing. … I’m sure now I’m right.” Other influential coaches backed Thompson up, saying the rule targeted black athletes, and the NCAA later rescinded it.
1992: Dear Mr. President
Craig Hodges was a 3-point specialist who helped the Chicago Bulls win their first two titles in the ’90s. He was also a social activist and a Muslim, and when the Bulls were invited to the White House after winning the ’92 NBA title, he wore a dashiki. He also respectfully handed President George Bush a letter in which he expressed his concern about racism in America and his opposition to Operation Desert Storm. Shortly after the visit, he was released because, the Bulls said, he couldn’t play defense.
1992: One Last Match
Arthur Ashe was suffering from AIDS. But he took up the cause of Haitian immigrants who were being denied entry into the United States because of America’s fear of the disease. On Sept. 10, 1992, he participated in a demonstration at the White House backed by a banner that read: “HAITIANS LOCKED OUT BECAUSE THEY’RE BLACK.” When the police came to break up the protest, they arrested the 1968 US Open champion and strapped his arms around his back.
Ashe died five months later. Inspired by Ashe, the Detroit Pistons’ Haitian center, Olden Polynice, then took up the cause.
1996: O Say Can You Not See
Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was having the best season of his career when he decided to stop standing for the national anthem. On March 12, 1996, NBA commissioner David Stern suspended Abdul-Rauf for his protest. They soon came to an agreement: He could close his eyes and look downward during the anthem. From then on, Abdul-Rauf did just that, saying a Muslin prayer to himself with his eyes closed.
While he showed due respect, two Denver disc jockeys trespassed on a mosque to play the national anthem with their trumpets. Five years later, arsonists burned down Abdul-Rauf’s home in Gulfport, Mississippi.
2003: Call To Disarm I
In 2003, Toni Smith, a senior guard for the Manhattanville College women’s basketball team, turned her back to the U.S. flag during the anthem to protest the U.S. involvement in the war in Iraq. When word got out of her act of conscience, she became the focus of a national debate.
2004: Call to Disarm II
During the Iraq War, baseball began a new tradition by playing “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch. But Carlos Delgado, the Blue Jays’ first baseman, deliberately took a seat during each rendition, saying, “I don’t stand because I don’t believe in the war.”
2010: Los Suns
In honor of Cinco de Mayo, and in protest of Arizona’s recent passage of a much stricter immigration policy, the Phoenix Suns donned Los Suns jerseys during the 2010 NBA playoffs.
2012: Blocked Shot
President Barack Obama invited the Stanley Cup-winning Boston Bruins to the White House, but goalie Tim Thomas, one of the two Americans on the team, bowed out, writing, “I believe the Federal Government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties and Property of the People. … This was not about politics or party. … This was about a choice I had to make as an individual.”
2012: Fashion Statement
To protest the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager who was shot to death in Florida, members of the Miami Heat, including Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, donned hooded sweatshirts before their game on March 24, 2012.
2014: In Remembrance I
On Nov. 29, 2014, after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Knox College basketball player Ariyana Smith walked onto her team’s home court in nearby Clayton with her hands raised, then fell to the floor for 4½ minutes, symbolic of the 4½ hours Brown’s body lay in the street after he was killed.
2014: In Remembrance II
A day later, on Nov. 30, 2014, in a similar protest before their game with the Oakland Raiders, St. Louis Rams Tavon Austin, Kenny Britt, Jared Cook, Chris Givens and Stedman Bailey jogged onto the field with their hands up to mimic the “don’t shoot” gesture for Michael Brown. The St. Louis Police Department demanded that the NFL discipline the players.
Cavaliers teammates LeBron James and Kyrie Irving were among several NBA players who wore “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts before their games on Dec. 8, 2014 — a reference to the last words of Eric Garner, who died in the custody of New York City police officers in July 2014.
2014: State of Outrage
During introductions before the Cincinnati Bengals-Cleveland Browns game on Dec. 14, 2014, Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins wore a T-shirt that read “JUSTICE FOR TAMIR RICE JOHN CRAWFORD” on the front and “THE REAL BATTLE OF OHIO” on the back. Rice, just 12 years old, and Crawford had recently been shot and killed by the police. The statement was criticized by the head of the Cleveland Police Union, who said the Browns owed police an apology.
2015: Feat of Clay
New York Knicks star and Baltimore resident Carmelo Anthony wore a “CASSIUS CLAY” T-shirt as he marched with demonstrators in his hometown on April 30, 2015, to protest the death of Freddie Gray, who had suffered fatal spinal injuries while in police custody 11 days earlier.
2015: Tiger Balm
More than 30 members of the University of Missouri football team announced during a bye week on Nov. 8, 2015, that they would be boycotting practices and games until university president Tim Wolfe resigned. They, and Jonathan Butler, a 25-year-old African-American graduate student who had begun a hunger strike, believed that Wolfe’s response to a spate of racial incidents on campus had been inadequate. Wolfe did resign. (Seventy-five years earlier, Missouri officials had demanded that NYU not play black fullback Leonard Bates.)
2016: A Matter of Conscience
In July 2016, members of the Minnesota Lynx, New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury began wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts to WNBA games to protest recent police shootings. Police unions took offense, and the league fined both the teams and the players. But after Liberty center Tina Charles took to Twitter to say that she refused “to be silent,” WNBA president Lisa Borders rescinded the fines and began a dialogue, saying, “While we expect players to comply with league rules and uniform guidelines, we also understand their desire to use their platforms to address important social issues.”
2016: Marathon Man
As Feyisa Lilesa crossed the finish line second in the marathon at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games on Aug. 21, 2016, the Ethiopian runner crossed his arms above his head to protest the treatment of his Oromo people by his country’s government. He then went into exile. But Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who is of Oromo descent, recently invited him back to receive a hero’s welcome.
2016: Perilous Fight
On Aug. 26, 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem before his preseason debut against the Green Bay Packers. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said after the game. “To me this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”
Home of the brave? Kaepernick still hasn’t found one.
The rest is history.