By James Wright Jr.
When then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand and acknowledge the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality and racist policies which targeted people of color, he ignited a national discussion about the role of athletes in politics and continued the history of sports as a platform for advocating for social change.
Dr. Harry Edwards, a retired sports sociologist and scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, thought so much of Kaepernick’s action that in 2020, he suggested the former quarterback receive one of the world’s greatest honors.
“I’m eligible to nominate people for the Nobel Peace Prize and I’m going to do that for Kaep,” said Edwards, sportswriter Mark W. Wright reported on his Aug. 27, 2020 LinkedIn page.
“[This is] not just because of him but because of all the athletes down through history, going all the way back to our first major Black superstars: Major Taylor, Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens and, of course Paul Robeson. All of these great athletes who’ve taken stands at great sacrifice in order to push social justice and human rights, none of them have ever been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. I’m going to do that,” he said.
While Kaepernick has not been honored with the Nobel Prize, his refusal to acknowledge the national anthem would be met with retaliation. He became a free agent after the 2016 season and has yet to be signed onto a team. In 2017, President Trump denounced Kaepernick and other NFL players who refused to acknowledge the national anthem and encouraged NFL owners to fire those who protested.
The protests of athletes ramped up after the killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020. In response, on May 31, Los Angeles Laker LeBron James wrote on his Twitter page “Why doesn’t America Love US!!!!!!!! TOO.” Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud wrote on the Players Tribute on May 30 on Twitter, “Neutrality about Black lives might as well be murder.”
NBA Hall of Famer and controlling interest owner of the Charlotte Hornets Michael Jordan expressed his outrage at Floyd’s murder.
“I see and feel everyone’s pain, outrage and frustration,” he said. “I stand with those who are calling out the ingrained racism and violence toward people of color in our country. We have had enough.”
Jordan said he didn’t have the answers “but our collective voices show strength and the inability to be divided by others,” he said. “Our unified voice needs to put pressure on our leaders to change our laws, or else we need to use our vote to create systemic change. Every one of us needs to be part of the solution.”
The MeToo Movement
While Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality and racism has drawn a lot of attention, athletes have also spoken out against sexual harassment and discrimination. Simone Biles, a seven-time gold medal gymnast, told NBC in 2021 that she competed in the Tokyo games to send a message about the wrongness of not punishing disgraced gymnastics coach Larry Nassar enough for his documented sexual and child abuse transgressions.
“I just feel like everything that happened, I had to come back to the sport to be a voice, to have change happen,” Biles told NBC News. “Because I feel like if there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it aside.”
While Biles eventually withdrew from competition due to mental health problems, her presence and outspokenness on sexual harassment brought a lot of attention to the issue. Elizabeth Taylor, an associate professor at Temple University who focuses on gender and sexual violence in sports organizations has noticed female athletes are using their platforms to support issues such as pay equity, better working conditions and treatment for sexual and mental abuse, according to the July 2021 edition of The Lilly.
“Women are really finding their voice and they’re realizing that their experiences matter,” Taylor said.