Black Athletes Have a History ofStanding Against Racism

Black football players at the University of Missourimade national headlines recently when they threatened to boycott a major game which would have cost the university at least $1 million; increasing the pressure on the school’s president,  and forcing him to step down over his handling of campus racism.

Back athletes have long used their prominence and leverage to voice outrage over injustice and discrimination. A protest that led to an iconic image took place at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Tommie Smith and John Carlos stepped onto the victory podium and raised their fists in silent but powerful protest against brutal discrimination back home. They did this during the medal ceremony at the playing of the national anthem.

On April 28, 1967, with the United States at war in Vietnam, boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army and was immediately stripped of his heavyweight title .Said Ali: “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong... And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. ... Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

On June 20, 1967, Ali was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years. He stayed out of prison as his case was appealed.

Fourteen Black University of Wyoming football players asked their coach to allow them to wear black armbands during a 1969 game against Brigham Young University, which was operated by the Mormon Church. They wanted to protest the church’s policy of banning African Americans from entering its priesthood. Coach Lloyd Eaton dismissed the athletes from the team, which set off a series of federal court cases, known as Williams v. Eaton, over free speech. Nine Black Syracuse University football players (who mistakenly became known as the Syracuse Eight) boycotted practices and games over “institutional racist mistreatment of players,” according to the university’s archives. They made great personal sacrifices for their protest, but it ultimately brought about change.

Tennis superstar Serena Williams ended her 14-year boycott of the $5 million Indian Wells, Calif., tournament earlier this year. Back in 2001 Richard Williams, the coach and father of Venus and Serena Williams, said that the Indian Wells crowd hurled the n-word at his daughters when Venus withdrew from a match against Serena. Five St. Louis Rams football players showed their solidarity last year with protesters in Ferguson, Mo., by jogging onto the field for pregame introductions with the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture, a reference to the testimony of some witnesses who said that Michael Brown had his hands up before white Police Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot the unarmed black teenager.

In 2012 LeBron James tweeted a photo of himself and his Miami Heat teammates wearing hoodies. The NBA stars added their voices to those demanding justice for Trayvon Martin, who was wearing a hooded sweatshirt when neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman fatally shot the unarmed black teenager in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2013 sparked nationwide protests. Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose came onto the court for warmups last year wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt. Those were the last words of Eric Garner, a Staten Island, N.Y., man who died when a white police officer used a choke hold to arrest the unarmed man for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, but a grand jury declined to indict New York City Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo.