Recuerdos de Pandora, CC BY-SA 2.0
Recuerdos de Pandora, CC BY-SA 2.0

Athletes in activism: the history of modern sports protest

April 13, 2022

In the wake of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, Eastern Europe sits at an unknown fate. An abundance of Russian citizens are unaware of the origins of the conflict and do not want war between the countries; this message was shown to the world when Russian tennis star Andrey Rublev wrote a message stating “No War Please” on a broadcasting camera during the semi-final of the Dubai Tennis Championship. 

In this unprecedented time of modern history, international and national athletic stars use their platforms of sporting events to bring awareness to a social cause.  

Elgin Baylor – Racial Equality Protest, 1959 

Elgin Baylor, a Minneapolis Lakers star, sat out of a neutral-site game against the Cincinnati Royals after being refused food and hotel service along with two of his teammates in segregated West Virginia. The game was meant to serve as a significant civic boost to West Virginia but turned into a national spark of outrage about racial equality. Headlines regarding inequality plagued the national papers for weeks and supporters for Baylor throughout the nation grew. This protest caused NBA president Maurice Podoloff to publicly side with Baylor and his teammates. Ultimately, this led to the NBA creating a rule stating that teams would not play in segregated states unless all players were guaranteed equal lodging and food. 

Muhammed Ali – Vietnam War Draft Protest, 1967 

The heavyweight boxer was at the prime of his career when the United States initiated the draft for the Vietnam War. Amidst training to defend the national championship title in Mar. 1967, Muhammed Ali was reported to have been drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. Ali, a Muslim, claimed that fighting in the war would violate his Islamic principles. Lawyers managed to put off Ali’s induction but on Apr. 28, Ali was ordered to induction. Ali refused to step forward during his induction ceremony, an act which could result in a five-year prison sentence and a $10,000 fine. Ali was stripped of his boxing license and for three years, did not take part in boxing. In 1970, Ali returned to the ring after the city of Atlanta granted Ali a boxing license; and in 1971, the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 in Ali’s favor. Ali’s refusal to be drafted was the first major hit in support for the Vietnam War and played a major role in convincing politicians and voters against the draft. 

Katherine Switzer – Gender Equality Protest, 1967 

Katherine Switzer, an American marathon runner, played a major role in gender equality in women’s running races. Prior to 1967, no woman had “officially” completed the Boston Marathon. After registering in the marathon using her initials, Switzer competed at entry number 261. Mid-race, Switzer was repeatedly assaulted by race officials as they attempted to remove her racing bib; this resulted in the iconic photograph of race manager Jock Semple attempting to rip off Switzer’s number. As a result of her actions, the AAU barred women from entering and competing alongside males. A violation of this would result in barring the offender from all future races. After an immense protest from women’s rights activists led by Switzer in 1972, the Boston Marathon established the official women’s race. 

Billie Jean King – Equal Pay Protest, 1973 

Tennis ace and 39-time Grand Slam Champion, Billie Jean King, led the way in the fight for equal pay for women at the 1973 tournament. At the 1972 tournament, there was a blatant $15,000 difference in prize money to the male and female winner. After realizing the lack of competition opportunities for women in tennis, King and nine other female tennis aces created their own tournament. At the 1973 Wimbledon, King formed the Women Tennis Association and threatened to boycott the US Open if equal pay was not guaranteed. Due to King’s athletic status, notably the first women athlete to make over $100,000, and a grant, both the men’s and women’s champion brought home $25,000 each. 

Colin Kaepernick – Police Brutality Protest, 2016 

Colin Kaepernick was the former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, playing six seasons with the franchise. Kaepernick was extremely active on social media regarding police brutality events against African Americans in 2016. In the third game of the 49ers’ season, Kaepernick notably knelt during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Kaepernick stated that he believed that the flag stood for oppression and inequality. In response to Kaepernick’s protest, several other NFL players and pro athletes kneeled together during the playing of the national anthem. Regarding Kaepernick’s protest, the commissioner of the NFL released a statement apologizing for disregarding the concerns of African American players.

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