This year in sports has taught us the power that this platform invites. From the loss of the great, Mohammed Ali, to Lebron James and teammates wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts during warm ups, and to the recent 2016 Rio Olympics that showcased female athletes of the world who dominated medal counts.
As more and more athletes, are showcasing their support for 49ers Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid and more recently Seahawks Jeremy Lanes sat during the national anthem, it has come to my attention the number of moments when athletes have often used their popularity to support social justice movements.
Although Kaepernick and his fellow NFL supporters are merely projecting a symbolic stance on the racial tension, their engagement with young people of color in America has proven to re-emphasize the voices involved in the Black Lives MaAs stter movement. The cultural element of any movement is vital to the survival of and impact of the movement. As social political bodies, athletes should not be critiqued for standing (or sitting) for their beliefs.
As Jessop (2015) notes, cultural turning points of political movements grounds the movement and evolves the movement from “social construal to social construction” and contributes to the “remaking of social relations”.
To understand the relationship where sports and politics have overlapped, we do not have to go far back into history.
During the 2010 Vancouver winter Olympics, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) enticed tensions with First Nations communities in British Columbia who argue the games violated international standards to protect (under the UNDRIP) and respect Indigenous rights to land. The protests where sparked when the IOC decided to develop their venues on un-ceded Indigenous land that required the consultation and authority of First Nation governments. This sparked a “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land” debate.
Today, we see more transgender athletes who are changing the conversation of sex and gender in sports. Individuals like Jaiyah Saelua, who was the first transgender person to compete in the men’s FIFA world games, and Caster Semenya, who won the gold in women’s 800-meter race at the 2009 Olympic games, set the path for other transgender athletes.
Recently, Megan Rapinoe, female American Soccer player, also kneeled during the national anthem stating, that as a gay woman in America, she knows “what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties.” Rapinoe goes on to state that it’s important to have white people support people of color.
Kaepernick’s protest is, of course, not the first of its kind, for instance.
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand before a NBA basketball game while he was playing for the Denver Nuggets in 1996. He was suspended and lost $32,000, eventually the league compromised and allowed Abdul-Rauf to pray with his head down during the anthem. But in 1998, his NBA career came to a stop when his contract with the Nuggets expired.
Kaepernick’s actions are a continued reminder that the momentum of BLM and the general dialogue to reshape racial tensions. The likelihood that such a movement will disappear in our memories will increase if we do not have public figures projecting their symbolic support for the grassroots activists who carry the expertise and knowledge necessary to advise policy makers.
While Abdul-Rauf brokered the path for athletes to voice opposition to the anthem, the result of Kaepernick’s struggle has not resulted in the loss of financial contributions or endorsements, instead, his jerseys are selling faster than his counterparts on the team.
While contemporary history of social activism is often bleak and does not support Jessop’s analysis that social movements have the potential to re-construct social relations, it is important to note when grounded cultural elements of sociopolitical movements have shifted international and domestic political attentions (for example the policy changes resulting from the protest to the 2010 BP oil spill).
However, Abdul-Rauf said it best that the importance of such actions are vital because it continues “to draw people’s attention to what’s going on whether you’re an athlete, a politician or a garbage man. These discussions are necessary.” And I couldn’t agree more, that the mere act of protest among athletes in the NFL and other major league sports, invites conversations about race relations, equality, and the justice system, not only within America, but has caused a spill over affect in Canada.
As neighbours up north, Canadians are not immune from the American culture, if I can call it that, of racism and inequity. And, the BLM movement, is no exception, it is as much a Canadian issue as it is an American issue. Canadians, with our recently elected PM Trudeau and history of multiculturalism like to tout colour blindness and inclusion. And as a proud brown-skinned Canadian I know that our nation has to come to grips with our own racial tensions.
Namely, the injustice and systemic racism that precludes the social mobility of Indigenous and colored Canadians. Indigenous peoples, arguably have a tough relationship with our justice system in Canada, making up 50% of the incarcerated population and the ongoing sexualisation and colonization of Indigenous women and girls. In the annual report by the Office of the Correctional Investigation (2014-2015), black Canadians are the fastest growing population behind bars, at 69%.
Black Canadians are frequently stopped by police and routinely carded. According to Statistics Canada hate crimes reported to the police are more likely than not to be motivated by racism and racialization, especially towards Black, Asian, Arabs and Aboriginal populations. Additionally, hate crimes that target religions is often directed at Muslim and Jewish populations.
In a response to the harassment and hate crimes, a mayor in Canada, Don Iveson has adopted an anti-racism approach with his hashtag #makethingsawkward. I think Iveson’s social media campaign should be universal and invite conversations about race rather than, as the media has done, refocus the conversation about the importance of national anthems in sporting events.
There have been some rumblings that Kaepernick will continue with his kneeling protest for the entire season. I believe the impact of Kaepernick’s actions will wither away, whether or not he continues for the entire season. His actions are resulting in critical discourse and awareness.
So, let’s start #makingthingsawkward.