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Athlete Activism

Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and other athletes turn ‘Words to Action’

Sports activist icons will be kicking off San Jose State’s focus on social change and athletics

It was the summer of 1968. Two San Jose State University (SJSU) students had just won medals in the 200-meter race of the Mexico City Games. Track and field athletes Tommie Smith, who took gold, and John Carlos, who came in third, climbed to their places on the podium. During the medal ceremony, hands over hearts were replaced with bowed heads and the raising of black-gloved fists. Smith and Carlos were silently protesting against the treatment of African-Americans in the United States.

It was a defining moment, particularly in black history, that saw athletes using their platforms to speak out against injustices that affected them and others. Though Smith and Carlos were suspended by the U.S. Olympics Committee and given 48 hours to leave the Olympic village — not to mention the backlash from former supporters — the men remained steadfast in their mission to bring awareness to the problems back home.

Nearly 50 years later, some of the most disconcerting parts of America’s history continue to repeat themselves. Shortly before the start of the regular NFL season, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick attracted the same mixed reactions of praise and disapproval after taking a knee during The Star-Spangled Banner at games. Kaepernick later explained that he knelt in protest of police brutality against people of color in America, while skeptics believed the quarterback disrespected members of the military.

Whether it’s raising of a fist or kneeling for a cause, a slight gesture can become a silent protest — and protests aren’t meant to be comfortable. It’s also only the first step toward finding a remedy for the country’s centuries’ worth of problems.

While there is no blanket solution to solving the injustices in America, sociologist and civil rights activist Harry Edwards is being proactive, beginning with an event that aims to turn protests into progress. The event, “Words to Action,” takes place Tuesday morning on the campus of San Jose State University and will focus on dialogue surrounding sport and social activism. The event will also kick off the launch of San Jose State’s Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change, which was established to focus largely on the intersection of sport and society through the use of theoretical, methodical and applied research.

“We want to foster ongoing dialogue and really see opportunities for substance of change through, not just through activism in the sense of protests and people speaking out, but also through academic study and analysis of athlete activism and of social issues,” said Paul Lanning, SJSU’s vice president for university advancement. “Where better than at a university that has such a history of athlete activism?”

The event begins with a discussion of athletes and activism in the NFL from Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE) CEO Jocelyn Benson, followed by “Athlete Activism: Yesterday and Today,” moderated by Benson. Panelists include media members and former athletes Ann Killion, Kevin Merida, Danielle Slaton, Tommie Smith and Marc Spears.

At 10:30 a.m. PT, a panel, “From Protest to Progress: Next Steps,” will discuss the next steps activists can take after protesting to keep the narrative and fight for justice alive. Panelists include former and current pro athletes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Anquan Boldin, Jim Brown, Takeo Spikes, Chris Webber, and Edwards as the panel’s moderator.

“San Jose State is embarking upon this as an institutional imperative,” Lanning said. “Coming out of that history, that legacy we have as an institution is today a commitment from the university that this will be the focal point for the institution going forward that we are committed to social justice and this is one expression of that effort, which is capitalizing upon our history of sport and society.”

At least 500 people are expected to attend, but everyone is invited to watch the live stream beginning at 8:30 a.m. PT. The conversation can be followed through social media platforms by using the hashtag #SJSUwordstoaction.

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.