The readings this week centered on questions our class itself seems to constantly return to: what has political activism looked like in sports historically and why does the media/general public limit athletes in their political activism? Stephen Townsend, Gary Osmon, and Murray Phillips partly answer the first question in their case study of Muhammad Ali. Unlike sports activists which cover our newspapers in modern moments, the actions and beliefs Muhammad Ali held which sprouted controversy were multi-faceted. Whereas Colin Kaepernick found divisive fame around the conversation of one issue, Ali’s divisive fame included topics like race, religion, and anti-war sentiments. I was unaware of the complexity of Muhammad Ali’s story prior to this article, although I knew he remains a black power icon and, moreover, an icon to all for remaining true to his personal beliefs during the height of his fame. The idea of a black, Muslim, anti-war athlete finding success in the 1960s seems… impossible, given the climate of race-relations at the time. Yes, the Civil Rights movement was passed in 1964, but we know as historians that it can take years (or in this case decades) for culture and climate to match up with law. As made obvious by the actions of Kaepernick and greater societal conversation, structural and systemic institutions remain in misalignment with the law either. Muhammad Ali’s story is one of eventual success, as pointed out by Townsend, Osmon, and Phillips, who find extreme interest in examining this success through the eyes of the journalists and press who covered Muhammad Ali. Unlike our ever-expanding landscape of media outlets, the press was the main medium for consumption of news at the height of Ali’s fame. The aforementioned authors highlight Muhammad Ali’s eventual acceptance by even journalists who claimed to hate him the most, such as Authur Daley. However, my understanding of this acceptance is that it came as the greater public’s perception of race and war sentiments began changing- and while they didn’t shift enough to meet Muhammad Ali’s stances, Townsend, Osmon, and Phillips point out that at the same time, Ali found success and gained respect in the boxing world and lost his radical edge to his views. I believe Muhammad Ali’s eventual acceptance reflects a slight shift in cultural values, paired with a willingness to hear his words because of his athletic success and less aggressive stance, rather than a true acceptance of his beliefs. Using the article Nike’s Big Gamble on Colin Kaepernick and other background knowledge to compare the two athletes, one similarity between the two is their eventual acceptance by the media. Kaepernick has been mostly accepted by big media outlets, such as The Ringer,The New York Times, CNN, The Guardian, etc. Even major brands such as Nike, as pointed out by the article Nike’s Big Gamble on Colin Kaepernick, provide evidence for an acceptance of his beliefs and actions. Despite this acceptance, Kaepernick remains a divisive figure. This leads me to the conclusion that the greater public hasn’t shifted its cultural views on police brutality- his original reason for protesting. Perhaps the media is ready to use Kaepernick’s face and support him because they truly believe in his cause, or they’re scared to be the last ones to condemn police brutality, or as pointed out by Michael Baumann, it’s a business strategy (Nike).
Differences between the two athletes include Kaepernick’s similarity to Smith and Carlos. All three athletes were pushed from their sports and place in the public eye at the very moment their radical actions became public attention. The aforementioned athletes’ identity as a human being lost its significance, especially once the media turns their actions into a conversation on the controversy of the act rather than the intention of the action. Ali, alternatively, remained in the public sphere even when banned from the boxing ring. Everything discussed to thus far serves to answer the question of what political activism has looked like in sports historically. But why does the media/general public limit athletes in their political activism? Take Lebron James for example, who was told by Fox News Host Laura Ingraham to “shut up and dribble” when he spoke out in agreeance with Colin Kaepernick’s protest. Based on our readings and class discussions, I argue athletes (and more so BIPOC athletes) are seen as commodities first and foremost- whose status and popularity can bring their organizations and sponsors infinite monetary gain. Mahammad Ali in the public sphere was seen as a boxer first, Kaepernick a quarterback first, Lebron James a basketball player first. It’s true that athletes of higher power status, icons, have greater protection and bargaining power with the public and it would be easier to recover from speaking out and receiving backlash; but regardless all athletes are seen as commodities- bodies with great athleticism meant to entertain, compete, inspire, and make money. So then, if athletes are seen as useful or valuable things which can be used for profit, what happens when they speak out on injustice? Injustice perpetrated by the very state which funds and consumes their careers? Injustice a majority of their base or their sponsors’ base refuses to acknowledge? The obvious solution for those who disagree with their narrative, the solution for their sponsors, the solution for their institutions: silence. As a society, especially in the United States, we need to see athletes as human beings first- particularly in regard to BIPOC athletes who have experienced structural and systemic racism or whose communities have been victims of disenfranchisement by the state for centuries.