A New Generation of Activist Athlete

BY PELLOM MCDANIELS III, Curator of African American collections in the Stuart A. Rose Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Library where he specializes in sports history, African American athletes and Civil Rights, and black masculinity and visual culture, and former NFL Athlete.

It should come as no surprise that someone like Colin Kaepernick has emerged from the age of President Barack H. Obama, inspired, empowered and ready to use his influence to challenge the status quo. Choosing to stand up (or rather take a knee) in protest of the killing of African Americans by law enforcement, the 28 year old former starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers has become the firebrand for a new generation of activist athlete. A student of history, Kaepernick has taken it upon himself to become a change agent using what he has at his disposal as a public figure to influence the thinking and actions of the masses. He has set himself apart as a model of selflessness and heroism.

While sports have occupied the American imagination as a source of entertainment, enlightenment, and, above all, opportunity, historically we have seen the importance of African American athletes using their celebrity to bring attention to the ills which haunt black life in America. In fact, from the beginning of the twentieth-century to today, there have been numerous individuals, who have challenged both directly and indirectly the “isms” responsible for shaping American culture. Their/these actions have led us to our current climate of dissent and activism. While most of these moments involve African Americans competing against whites in an attempt to claim victory in the arena, and the financial rewards and social mobility that coincided; the greater goal of these African American athletes was in claiming their humanity, citizenship, and their race through their performances on the playing field.

John Carlos%2C Tommie Smith%2C Peter Norman 1968cr
American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, along with Australian Peter Norman, during the award ceremony of the 200 m race at the Mexican Olympic games.

I can’t help but recall the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, where Tommie Smith and John Carlos shocked the world, using their victories in the 200-meter dash to protest against the United States and its policies on human rights issues related to African Americans in particular and oppressed people in general. Clad in their USA warm-up suits, wearing black socks without shoes to symbolize poverty and black leather gloves (Smith wearing the right and Carlos wearing the left of the same pair) to symbolize black power and unity, on the award stand they lifted their clinched fists in protest as the American anthem played. And while they were chastised for their actions, they accepted their fate and have endured the consequences of that choice because it was necessary.

But isn’t that the point of Kaepernick’s argument? Isn’t he trying to bring attention to the institutionally endorsed mistreatment and abuse of black people that most white Americans don’t seem to care about? Isn’t he trying to bring attention to the system of oppression deeply embedded in American culture that inextricably links blackness to criminality? Isn’t he attempting to show us the way to unify from within, while dismissing the doubters from without? Isn’t he taking a leadership role by doing what needs to be done, to right a wrong of history that continues to feed the prison industrial complex, which depends heavily on black bodies and the fear of a black planet?

The fact that he recognized the most expedient and effective way to get the attention of the majority was to stage his protest where they would actually see him is reminiscent of Smith and Carlos’ Olympic protest. In both instances, Carlos, Smith and Kaepernick recognized that black people’s lives mattered most when they were entertaining. In the liminal spaces of the stadium, field house, and arena, blackness is on view as a consumable commodity: one that fulfills certain stereotypical fantasies which hinge on the believed subdued and controlled threat of blackness within those spaces.

I’m convinced that Colin Kaepernick understands not only the historical significance of his actions, but recognizes that there are real consequences related to his commitment to social justice that he is willing to pay. Through his symbolic protest and his humanitarian agenda, he clearly knows what he is doing. And doing it very well. His influence has trickled over into the NBA, Major League Baseball, WNBA, and to college and high school sports teams.

Clearly, we are at a critical moment in American and world history. A moment that will define the future of our country and the global struggle for the humanity of the marginalized. For those paying attention, we are seeing the rise of the modern black athlete. And while fans and misguided, uninformed politicians continue their assault on the character of the young men and women speaking truth to power, the question I ponder is how far will we support these aspiring leaders? Can they depend upon us? And how can WE contribute to this movement?