Athletes Making Political and Social Statements
Athletes are some of the most visible figures in society today, and for that reason, any political or social statements they choose to make can be powerful.
Politics, social issues and sports have collided many times throughout history—consider the Cold War era Olympic boycotts, for example. Or think about the broad implications of Jackie Robinson becoming the first black player in Major League Baseball.
But today we’ll focus specifically on the athletes. From the first female in the Boston Marathon to an NFL punter standing up for gay rights, many athletes have chosen to take a stand. Many athletes have chosen to use their platform to make a bigger impact. Who could ever forget the iconic image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal podium at the 1968 Olympic Games?
Let’s take a look (chronologically) at impactful statements by athletes, dating back over 100 years. And remember, regardless of individual beliefs, standing up for something you believe in is a powerful thing.
Peter O’Connor Raises Irish Flag: 1906
Peter O’Connor was an Irish long-jumper who competed at the 1906 Olympic Games in Athens.
In 1900, O’Connor turned down an invitation to join the British team, according to Ryle Dwyer of the Irish Examiner. O’Connor was passionate about Irish independence and refused to compete with the British.
In 1906, O’Connor and two other Irishmen traveled to the games to represent Ireland alone. This was much to the dissatisfaction of British officials, who refused to recognize the contingent as a separate entity.
O’Connor went on to win the silver medal in the long jump, and as he stood on stage to receive that medal, he did something that would seem outlandish today. As the British national anthem began to play, he climbed the flagpole and waved an Irish flag instead.
Ralph Rose Refuses to Lower Flag: 1908
In 1908, another athlete stood up for Ireland in defiance of Britain. During the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in London, Irish-American shot-putter Ralph Rose was responsible for carrying the American flag.
Flag-bearers were required to lower the flag in front of King Edward VII, but Rose refused.
Republic of China "Under Protest": 1960
Leading up to the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, political tensions flared between China’s mainland and the island of Taiwan. The People’s Republic (mainland) withdrew from the 1960 games, just as it had in 1958, when the IOC refused to ban Taiwan (the Republic of China).
Shortly after the People’s Republic withdrew, Avery Brundage, head of the IOC, announced that Taiwan could only compete if it went by the name Taiwan or Formosa and not the Republic of China.
During the opening ceremonies, the Taiwanese contingent of athletes carried a sign that read, “Under Protest.”
Kathrine Switzer Runs Boston Marathon: 1967
In 1967, women weren’t allowed to run the Boston Marathon. Kathrine Switzer made a statement by registering anyway—she signed her form “K.V. Switzer.”
She made it two miles before officials attempted to forcefully remove her from the race course. According to Sarah Lorge Butler in a special to espnW, the race director came at her and shouted, “Give me those numbers and get the hell out of my race!” Despite those efforts, Switzer finished the race in four hours and 20 minutes.
Switzer's bold run was a significant step for women in athletics. Women were officially allowed into the Boston Marathon in 1972. Switzer is now a beloved part of the event—she has been a broadcaster for over 30 years.
Muhammad Ali Draft Evasion: 1967
Muhammad Ali will always be known as one of the most socially active athletes in history. Over the course of his legendary boxing career, Ali spoke out in favor of civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Born Cassius Clay, Ali converted to Islam and changed his name in his twenties.
In 1967, Ali was arrested for draft evasion. He was convicted, stripped of his heavyweight title and banned from boxing. His case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, and his conviction was overturned in 1971.
According to Craig Hlavaty of the Houston Chronicle, Ali told reporters back then, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” Also, “I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”
Tommie Smith and John Carlos' Black Power Salute: 1968
One of the most famous statements made by athletes occurred at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos took gold and bronze, respectively, in the 200-meter event. Aussie Peter Norman took silver.
On the medal podium, Smith and Carlos wore black gloves and raised their hands during the playing of America’s national anthem. While many referred to this as the black power salute, the gesture was meant to represent all people fighting for human rights across the globe. Smith and Carlos both received heavy criticism in the aftermath of their act.
Carlos told Gary Younge of The Guardian in 2012, “I had a moral obligation to step up. Morality was a far greater force than the rules and regulations they had. God told the angels that day, ‘Take a step back – I'm gonna have to do this myself.’”
While Norman didn’t raise his arm, he did join Smith and Carlos in wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights patch on his uniform. According to Younge, Smith and Carlos were both pallbearers at Norman’s funeral in 2006.
Rick Monday Saves the Flag 1976
In 1976, a Chicago Cubs player performed an extraordinary act of patriotism. As he stood in the outfield at Dodger Stadium one day, he spotted a pair of protesters and realized their plan was to set fire to the American flag. Monday raced over and stopped the act before it happened.
Monday told Joe Resnick of The Washington Post, "What those people were doing, and their concept of what they were trying to do was wrong. That feeling was very strongly reinforced by six years in the United States Marine Corps Reserves. I still think it's wrong to do that."
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf Refuses to Stand: 1996
In 1996, NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand during the national anthem, citing his Islamic beliefs. According to Ed Moore of the Daily Press, Abdul-Rauf had said that the U.S. flag “represents oppression and tyranny.”
The NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf for what amounted to one game—the two sides reached an agreement that Abdul-Rauf would stand for the anthem, but he would be allowed to keep his eyes closed and bow his head in prayer. Despite the compromise, when word got out about Abdul-Rauf’s situation, many people were very unhappy, and he was often subjected to anger and threats.
Jim Armstrong of the AP (via USA Today), reported that Abdul-Rauf said, “It was close to impossible to play in the U.S. after that. The doors were shut, but I said the NBA wasn't the only show in town and I was going to make use of my God-given talent even if it meant playing in Timbuktu.”
Pat Tillman Enlists in the Army: 2002
Pat Tillman played professional football with the Arizona Cardinals from 1998-2002. The September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center prompted Tillman to put his NFL career on hold and enlist in the United States Army.
After the attacks, Tillman told reporters (via E.J. Montini of Arizona Republic), “At times like this you stop and think about just how good we have it, what kind of system we live in, and the freedoms we are allowed. A lot of my family has gone and fought in wars, and I really haven't done a damn thing.”
Tillman and his brother Kevin enlisted and both served in Iraq and Afghanistan. In April 2004, Tillman was killed by friendly fire during an ambush in Afghanistan.
Carlos Delgado Sits During God Bless America: 2004
In his playing days, former major league baseball player Carlos Delgado quietly let the world know that he was opposed to the United States’ involvement in the war in Iraq.
Delgado’s Blue Jays were playing at Yankee Stadium in New York in 2004. Yankee Stadium is the only venue in MLB that plays “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch of every game. Delgado’s way of honoring his political beliefs was to remain seated during the playing of the song.
In 2004, Delgado told the Toronto Star (via the Chicago Tribune). “I never stay outside for 'God Bless America,' I actually don't think people have noticed it. I don't [stand] because I don't believe it's right, I don't believe in the war.”
Unhappy fans in New York became aware of Delgado’s plans and chanted, “USA, USA,” when he was up to bat.
Curt Schilling on the Campaign Trail: 2004
Former MLB pitcher Curt Schilling hasn’t been shy about his political beliefs over the years. After helping the Boston Red Sox win the 2004 World Series, Schilling set about assisting George W. Bush’s presidential campaign.
Schilling appeared on Good Morning America and said, "And make sure you tell everybody to vote, and vote Bush next week," according to Brian C. Mooney of The Boston Globe. He also introduced Bush at rallies in New Hampshire leading up to the election.
Joseph Williams’ Hunger Strike: 2012
In 2012, a football player at the University of Virginia went on a hunger strike.
Joseph Williams was a part of the Living Wage Campaign, and he joined about 20 other university students in the strike in order to protest wages paid to university service workers. From February 19-27, Williams survived on water and juice alone.
Williams was passionate about the cause. According to Mark Schlabach of ESPN, he stated, “These people are living paycheck to paycheck and having to work two or three jobs to put food on the table. They're having to do without some utilities because they can't pay for it. The university definitely has the means to correct it.”
Tim Thomas Skips the White House: 2012
When the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011, the team got an invitation to the White House. Pretty standard. What isn’t standard is the playoff MVP opting not to make the trip.
Goaltender Tim Thomas chose not to attend due to his personal feelings on the political landscape in America. At the time, he posted the following to his Facebook page (via The Washington Post):
I believe the Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People.
This is being done at the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial level. This is in direct opposition to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers vision for the Federal government.
Because I believe this, today I exercised my right as a Free Citizen, and did not visit the White House. This was not about politics or party, as in my opinion both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country. This was about a choice I had to make as an INDIVIDUAL.
Miami Heat Wear Hoodies: 2012
In February 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a man in his Florida neighborhood. Martin was unarmed and wearing a hooded sweatshirt when George Zimmerman shot and killed him in what Zimmerman called self-defense.
In March of that year, LeBron James tweeted a photo of him and his Miami Heat teammates wearing hooded sweatshirts. The hashtag read #WeAreTrayvonMartin.
At the time, Dwyane Wade told the Associated Press (via ESPN), “This situation hit home for me because last Christmas, all my oldest son wanted as a gift was hoodies. So when I heard about this a week ago, I thought of my sons. I'm speaking up because I feel it's necessary that we get past the stereotype of young, black men and especially with our youth.”
Muslim Women Compete in Olympics: 2012
The 2012 Olympic Games in London provided a setting for several Muslim women to compete. According to Daily Mail, women from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Brunei all became the first females from their countries to compete in the Olympics.
But it wasn’t a smooth road for many of these women. To provide one example, sixteen-year-old Wojdan Shaherkani represented Saudi Arabia in the judo event. In her home country, women are not allowed to leave the house without a male present, so her participation became a source of debate. Her family dealt with negativity from other Saudi Arabians who didn't agree.
On top of that, she was almost unable to compete because of a battle over her headwear between the Saudi Olympic committee and judo’s governing body. The OC required traditional headwear, but the governing body had concerns about its safety in competition. An agreement was ultimately reached, and Shaherkani was allowed to compete.
Romney vs. Obama Endorsements: 2012
Many sports figures publicly showed support for one of the 2012 presidential candidates. For example, Michael Jordan contributed to president Obama’s campaign, while Alex Rodriguez supported Mitt Romney.
According to an article in the Huffington Post, other Romney supporters included Jack Nicklaus, Kristi Yamaguchi and John Elway. Sports figures who contributed to Obama’s campaign included Vince Carter, Magic Johnson and Gregg Popovich.
Whichever candidate they supported, prominent sports figures exercised their rights to be involved in the decision in 2012, and that’s a win for everyone.
Aaron Rodgers Supports Conflict-Free Campus Initiative: 2013
The Green Bay Packers quarterback spoke at the University of Wisconsin in 2013 about a cause he feels strongly about. He spoke on behalf of the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative, which aims to raise awareness about conflict in Congo and discourage the use of products made with what it calls conflict materials.
What does this mean? It means that minerals used to produce technological products—think cell phones and computers—can be mined in Congo. The purchase of these minerals helps the economy in a country that has been embroiled in bloody conflict for decades.
Rodgers told Travis Waldron of ThinkProgress, “I’ve been given a platform based on the success that we’ve had as a team and that I’ve had individually What am I going to do? I have a voice, I have an opportunity to tell people what I care about. And I care about this deeply, I care about making an impact in this world.”
Chris Kluwe for Gay Marriage Rights: 2014
Chris Kluwe, a former NFL punter, penned this article for Deadspin, published in January 2014. In the article, Kluwe alleges that a few members of his former organization, the Minnesota Vikings, had engaged in homophobic behavior. He also alleges that his own advocacy for gay-marriage rights contributed to his dismissal from the team in 2013.
In July, the team agreed to suspend special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer for three games—Priefer was one of the primary offenders of anti-gay remarks, according to Kluwe. In August, a settlement was reached in a lawsuit between Kluwe and the team. While Kluwe is not set to receive any compensation, the team agreed to make financial contributions to various LGBT causes.
The final lines of his Deadspin piece read, “Thank you for taking the time to read my story. Never be afraid to do what's right. If no one ever says anything, nothing ever changes.”
Athletes Protest Anti-Gay Law in Russia: 2014
In 2013, Russia passed a new law that forbade the distribution of information to young people on the topic of “non-traditional” sexuality. This was interpreted as an anti-gay move, and protests flared around the world.
The 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi only made the spotlight shine brighter on the new law and its opposition. Around that time, Russian president Vladimir Putin said, “We don't have a ban on non-traditional sexual relations. We have a ban on the propaganda of homosexuality and paedophilia,” according to the BBC.
Many athletes opted not to get directly involved. Shortly after the new Russian law was passed, the IOC reminded the world of an existing rule that prohibits athletes from making political statements during the games. A spokesperson told Tris Reid-Smith of the Gay Star News, “…the IOC has a clear rule laid out in the Olympic Charter (Rule 50) which states that the venues of the Olympic Games are not a place for proactive political or religious demonstration.”
Still, some stood up in their own ways. Swedish athletes Emma Green Tregaro and Moa Hjelmer both painted their nails in rainbow colors at the 2013 world championships. Dutch snowboarder Cheryl Maas wore rainbow gloves during the Olympics, and some Ukrainian athletes left the games altogether.
St. Louis Rams "Hands Up, Don’t Shoot": 2014
In August 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was unarmed, and there have been conflicting reports about exactly what happened. Protests flared in Ferguson and other parts of the country.
In November, a grand jury opted not to indict the officer, Darren Wilson, for any crime. Later that month, members of the St. Louis Rams displayed their own act of protest. When entering the field for a game against the Oakland Raiders, five players put their hands up, signifying, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” The players were Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, Jared Cook, Chris Givens and Kenny Britt.
The St. Louis Police Officers Association demanded an apology for the act, which the players refused to provide. Instead, the team offered to donate an undisclosed sum to a police nonprofit organization, according to The Washington Times.
I Can’t Breathe: 2014
In July 2014, 43-year-old Eric Garner of Staten Island was killed after being choked by a police officer. Garner had been stopped for allegedly selling illegal cigarettes, and he was unarmed. Garner’s last words, as captured by a cell phone video of the incident, were, “I can’t breathe.” A grand jury ultimately decided not to indict the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, in what was ruled a homicide.
NBA star Derrick Rose wore a shirt that read, “I can’t breathe,” prior to a game that occurred just days after the grand jury’s decision. Other high-profile athletes have joined in with similar shirts including LeBron James and Kevin Garnett.
Rose told reporters of his decision (via WGNtv.com), “I don’t want my son growing up being scared of police or even have the thought in his mind that something like that could happen. I have a cousin, that easily could’ve been him or one of our relatives. It’s sad that people lost their lives.”