10 Athletes Who Made Bold Political and Social Statements

Ryan Vooris@ryanvoorisContributor IIIAugust 30, 2010

10 Athletes Who Made Bold Political and Social Statements

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    On Saturday Albert Pujols and his manager, Tony LaRussa, attended the "Restoring Honor," rally held on the Mall in Washington D.C.  The rally was organized by popular radio and television host Glenn Beck.

    The rally was exceedingly well attended with estimates placing the crowd between 300,000 and 500,000.  Beck and his organizers stated goals were to raise money for the families of fallen special forces soldiers and make a public expression of faith and patriotism.

    The rally was not without its critics.

    Beck, himself, is a brutally harsh, often brash critic of President Obama and the current American progressive movement.  As a result he has inspired incredible vitriol towards himself and his causes.

    By stepping out, perhaps even tangentially, with something Beck supported, Pujols and LaRussa have come under mild criticism for their appearances.

    They are not the first athletes to embroil themselves in a political controversy.  Many atheletes have stepped out in support or opposition to many different social, religious and political issues. 

    No sport has been free of these displays.

    This slide show is a look at some of the most famous, infamous and important displays of an athletes personal political and social preferences. 

Carlos Delgado Refuses to Stand for God Bless America

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    Beginning in the 2004 season Toronto first baseman Carlos Delgado decided to no longer stand for "God Bless America" during the 7th inning stretch of Major League Baseball games. 

    In the 7th inning Delgado would stand silently in protest in the dug out.

    In July of 2004 a story in Toronto Star, explained Delgado's rational.

    "It's a very terrible thing that happened on September 11th It's (also) a terrible thing that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, ... I just feel so sad for the families that lost relatives and loved ones in the war. But I think it's the stupidest war ever.".

    Delgado further explained that he felt the song, "God Bless America" represented a war he didn't believe in. 

    When the Blue Jays traveled to New York later in the season Delgado was widely booed and mocked by Yankee fans.  He continued his form of war protest regardless. 

    Delgado was traded to the New York Mets in 2006.  At that time he began standing for the song again.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos' Black Power Salute

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    The image is one of the most famous in sports history: two American track and field athletes stand atop the medal platform, their heads bowed and their right hands raised to the sky, fists clenched in protest. 

    At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics American sprinter Tommie Smith won the 200 meter race and fellow countryman John Carlos came in third. 

    The athletes received their medals and took the the platform for the national anthem.  When the Star Spangled Banner began both Carlos and Smith performed the "Black Power salute."

    They were roundly booed when they left the platform.

    Carlos and Smith were protesting the treatment of black Americans and other minorities in the United States

    Both athletes were expelled from the games and roundly criticized for their actions. 

    Smith and Carlos both went on to play in the NFL. 

    Their use of the Olympic platform to express their protest still inspires debate. 

    Sports Illustrated reported that the photograph of their protest was the most reproduced image in the history of the Olympics. 

Shawn Green Chooses Religion Over Baseball

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    Albert Pujols was not the first baseball player to stand up and acknowledge his important religious beliefs. 

    As a devout Jewish believer Green did not play on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calender.  Jews believe the day should be celebrated with fasting and prayer.

    The major religious holiday usually falls in mid to late September. 

    This is also when baseball pennant races are at there height.

    Throughout his long and respected career, Green refused to play in games which fell on Yom Kipper.  Green, an all-star right fielder for the Blue Jays, Dodgers and Mets sat out regardless of his team's need for his bat or their position in a September pennant race. 

    His religion was more important to him. 

Taiwanese Athletes Walk Under Protest

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    Controversy erupted in the days before the 1960 Olympics. 

    At that point in history, the United States and most western countries, did not recognize the communist government in mainland China.  Instead the US and others viewed the leaders and people on the island of Taiwan as the deposed and rightful rulers of mainland China.

    This was a problem for the International Olympic Committee.

    In 1958, China withdrew from the 1960 Rome Olympics because they wanted Taiwan banned from participating. 

    In response the IOC, with the support of the Soviet Union but in opposition to US wishes, asked that Taiwan no longer march under the name  "The Republic of China," but use the name of Taiwan or Formosa. 

    Taiwan considered boycotting the games, but decided against it. 

    Athletes from Taiwan were not happy about the name change forced on them.

    When they marched into the Olympic stadium for the opening ceremony the lead Taiwanesse athlete held a sign reading, "Under Protest."  IOC President Avery Brundage had to be talked out of banning the Taiwannese delegation from participating in the games. 

    The Olympics was now being used as tool in the foreign policy battle between the "free" West and the communist bloc.  1960 would not be the last time. 

Los Suns

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    In late April the state of Arizona passed a new immigration law to stop rampant illegal immigration across their state.  The law was passed with strong bipartisian support and was modeled on existing federal immigration statutes.

    Robert Sarver, the owner of the Phoenix Suns did not like it. He, and many others, thought the law to be racially insensitive.  In response he used his team to make a political statement.

    The Suns occasionally wore jerseys which said, Los Suns on them. 

    For the Suns May 5th, 2010 playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs, Sarver had the team wear the jerseys in protest of the new immigration law. 

    Reports indicated that the team unanimously decided to wear the jerseys.  The game was also occuring on Cinco De Mayo. 

    However, statements by the Suns owner and Suns players, left no doubt that their choice of jersey was a political statement. 

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf's Silent Prayer

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    Chris Wayne Johnson of LSU was the highly touted, third overall pick in the 1990 NBA draft. 

    During his first season with the Denver Nuggets, Johnson converted to Islam and changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. 

    Abdul-Rauf had a productive first few seasons in Denver, including setting the NBA single season record for highest free throw percentage. 

    However it was something else that Abdul-Rauf did with his hands which brought him national attention.

    Starting in 1996 Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for "The Star-Spangled Banner" before NBA games. Abdul-Rauf said that he saw the flag as a symbol of oppression.  He believed the United States was an unjust tyranny and therefore in conflict with his Islamic beliefs. 

    NBA commissioner David Stern did not like this belief.  He suspended Abdul-Rauf for one game in March 1996. 

    Abdul-Rauf and the NBA then worked out an compromise.  Abdul-Rauf would agree to stand for the national anthem but he would be allowed to bow his head, close his eyes and recite a Muslin prayer. 

    After these events many NBA teams considered Abdul-Rauf too controversial a player to employee. 

    After his 1996 suspension, he played three more NBA seasons, starting in only 62 more games. 

Olympic Boycotts

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    Despite the Olympics oft-repeated claim of being non-political, the international sporting event has long been an avenue for individuals and countries to make major political and social statements. 

    On several occasions entire counties have used a boycott of the Olympics Games to express their protest.

    In 1908, Irish athletes boycotted the London games because of Britain's refusal to grant Irish independence. 

    In 1980, 62 countries led by the United States of America boycotted the Moscow summer Olympics after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas 1979.  The decision was not one made by American athletes.  It was made by President Jimmy Carter and the decision was one of the least popular ones Carter ever made during his presidency. 

    In response the Soviet Union and other Warsaw pact members, organized a boycott of the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles. . 

Muhammad Ali Refuses Army Induction

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    Muhammad Ali was the heavyweight champion of the world in 1967.  He was one of the most famous and recognizable athletes in the world. 

    In 1967 the United States was also deeply engulfed in the Vietnam war. 

    Ali was drafted to the join the fight.  He refused enlistment.

    Ali's stand was based on his beliefs as a Muslim and his stated opposition to the Vietnam war. 

    Ali was promptly arrested and later found guilty of draft evasion.  He was stripped of his title and had his fighting license suspened.  Ali did not fight for three years. 

    In 1971 the Supreme court overruled his conviction.  In 1975 he regained the heavyweight title after defeating George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire.

    Ali's decision to refuse induction is the most famous case of an individual athlete making a major political statement.  His decision was a lighting rod for discussion regarding the Vietnam war and the draft. 

    At the time polls should a majority of American's disagreed with Ali's refusal to serve.  However in the decades which followed, Ali's stance has taken on the romantic ideal of an individual standing up for his ideals and against war. 

Pat Tillman Leaves the NFL for the US Army

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    Since 2004, the odyssey of Pat Tillman has been well told. 

    In the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks against America, the former Arizona State standout and Arizona Cardinal safety quit his budding NFL career and enlisted in the US Army.

    The Cardinals had previously offered Tillman a three year, 3.6 million dollar contract. Tillman turned it down and joined the Army in May 2002. 

    After serving in Iraq, Tillman became an Army Ranger in late 2003. 

    He was later deployed to Afghanistan, where he was killed by friendly fire on April 22nd, 2004. 

    To this day Tillman's motivation for giving up his career in the NFL are shrouded in mystery and conjecture.  His religious and political beliefs seem to differ depending on the source. 

    However, there is no doubt that after the September 11th attacks, Tillman thought it was more important to fight for his country than to fight on the football field.  It was a bold political and social statement which echos even stronger in the wake of his tragic death. 

Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson Break Baseball's Color Barrier

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    In 1946, Brooklyn Dodgers general manager and president, Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a minor league baseball contract.

    It was one of the most important moments in the history of American sport (if not the history of America).

    Rickey was a former baseball player, turned executive, who had been looking for a chance to re-integrate the game of baseball for years.

    In the wake of World War II, and in the body and mind of Jackie Robinson, he found his central player.  

    Robinson became the first African-American to play professional baseball in nearly 50 years.  His signing broke baseball's color barrier and caused ripples around the country.

    Robinson debuted for the Dodgers in 1947 and proved himself to be one of the finest baseball players of his generation.  Within ten years black Americans were freely able to participate in baseball at its highest levels.

    Rickey's 1946 decision came eight years ahead of Rosia Parks and ten years before the Reverand Martin Luther King appeared on the national stage.

    Rickey carefully selected Robinson because of his abilities and more importantly, his faith and demeanor.  They both knew what was at stake for them, their game and Robinson's race. 

    Rickey and Robinson had an impact on the world of baseball, sport and America like no athlete before and since.  Their example will stand for generations to study and admire. 

A Call to Civility and Maturity

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    Sports and politics rarely meet under good terms.  Someone is always standing on the other side of an issue.

    Though we look at Jackie Robinson's behavior as heroic, he and Branch Rickey were villains to many people in 1947. 

    Public displays and expression of religion from athletes like Tim Tebow, Shawn Green, Albert Pujols, Eric Liddell or Muhmoud Abdul-Rauf, always make those who don't subscribe to those beliefs uncomfortable.  Religion is a difficult subject to discuss in ones home, it's even harder to do with respect and decency in a competitive, highly emotional arena like sports. 

    Protest is protest, because it usually stands against a majority.  As such the voices deriding it are often louder than those supporting it. 

    Regardless, the United States of America should always stand as a land where athletes can express their political, social or religious beliefs with freedom.

    In each case a careful examination of the circumstances, the athletes personal statements and the issues involved should be deeply examined before we begin condemning athletes for daring to have an opinion we don't like. 

    We would like our athletes to be non-political persons solely devoted to our team's victory on the field.  This is selfish thinking.  They are fully formed individuals with ideas, hopes and beliefs.  We should allow them to be so, even if it "interferes" with the games we have the freedom to enjoy. 

    Where ever possible I have endeavored to be honest and complete with the facts in this slide show. 

    That being said, I'm sure there are mistakes or slight misrepresentations contained within it. 

    If you feel the need to comment please be respectful.

    I'd also like to encourage mention of important events I've missed.  It's always nice to learn about moments when sport meant more than just who won and lost on the field.