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Independence Day ponderings: The Enduring Legacy of Activist Athletes

Kaepernick and Russell

July 4, 2018
Sheilla Dingus

Stick to sports. Shut up and dribble.  Comments such as these ignore the past, attempting to remove the political significance of sports as if this is something shocking or new.  Sports have always been a microcosm of society as well as a catalyst for reflection and change.

When asked why they encourage sports participation, parents often cite the virtues of teamwork, mental and physical development, goal-setting and achievement, development of perseverance, self-discipline, sportsmanship, growth, and independence.  All of these are important life skills, so I must ask, “why should these things be abandoned once an athlete reaches a certain level of prominence, as some seem to suggest?”  Sports exist to enhance life, not the reverse.

As a form entertainment, it is the human drama of sport that makes it universally compelling, but that drama extends beyond buzzer beating baskets and miraculous catches, to the personalities and people behind the game-changing plays and their real and lasting potential for positive impact on human lives.

Bill and me

On a trip to Boston a couple years ago I found myself giddy with delight when I stumbled across a statue of Bill Russell – a true leader in every sense of the word.

I grew up idolizing Bill Russell.  Several years before I was born my father, a capable athlete in his own right, met Mr. Russell at a basketball event at in the 1950’s, before his legendary career with the Celtics, and in the course of things, they shared a conversation that made a lasting impression on my dad.  While there was absolutely no question of Russell’s prowess on the basketball court, it was Bill Russell’s character, dignity and intelligence that impressed Dad the most.  We enthusiastically followed his career and cheered as he proceeded to make basketball history. When we watched the games Dad made good use of the opportunity to teach me about Russell’s excellence off the court as well.   Whether Dad observed racist behavior directed at Mr. Russell, during their encounter, or whether Russell merely shared some of his experiences with my father, I’m not sure, but Dad used our basketball time to teach me, as a young child, about the evil of racism and the importance of standing up for what’s right, and how we should never devalue a person because of their skin color.

Since dad grew up in the rural south, where bigotry and discrimination were the norm, and often whites were taught to fear black people and to avoid them, I have to believe that it was his involvement with sports, and black athletes, including Mr. Russell that expanded Dad’s world-view, and appreciation for the beautiful and multi-colored tapestry that composes humanity which he endeavored to pass along to his only child.

Sports creates a platform for conversations that might not otherwise take place.  I remember once, when I was maybe ten or eleven years old, I was watching football with Dad and suddenly it occurred to me that there were no black quarterbacks, so I asked, “Why?”  Dad unhesitatingly replied, “The team owners don’t think black guys are smart enough to play the position.”

I found his response shocking, so I injected, “But that’s not true is it?”

“No, it isn’t,” he replied also without hesitation.  In actuality, by the time I asked my question, two black NFL players, Marlin Briscoe and James Harris, had ascended to the starting quarterback position in the NFL, but sadly shared only six starts between them. Slowly but surely, the situation improved, but it wasn’t until 2017, almost four decades later, when the New England Patriots started Jacoby Brissett, due to Tom Brady’s Deflategate suspension and injury to his first back-up, Jimmy Garoppolo, that it could be said that all 32 NFL teams had started a black quarterback.

The prominence of the black, activist athlete seemed to come to a crescendo with the Black Power salutes of John Carlos and Tommie Smith during the playing of the national anthem at the 1968 Olympic Games.  Their actions were viewed by many as controversial and both men were suspended from the U.S. Olympic team, and the activist athlete seemed to largely fade from view shortly afterward, but not before helping our country to achieve a level of integration and progress that might have seemed impossible a few generations back.

The 1970’s seemed to represent a change in focus from racial to gender equality, and this, also was largely propelled through sports.

In 1973, Billie Jean King’s sound defeat of Bobby Riggs in the much heralded “Battle of the Sexes” was a win for all women.  As a twelve-year-old girl at the time, I saw her victory as an sign of infinite possibility.

Pat Summitt

Before her untimely death from early Alzheimer’s disease, Pat Summitt amassed the most wins of any college coach ever, at 1,098 plus 18 Final Fours and 8 NCAA titles, all the while putting womens college sports on the map and paving the way for an eventual WNBA.

Beginning in the late 70’s and extending far beyond, Pat Summitt set out to revolutionize women’s basketball and in doing so, opened up countless opportunities for women that were nonexistent prior to her arrival.

In 1976, during her second year coaching Tennessee’s Lady Vols, Summitt (then known by her maiden name, Head) was instrumental in challenging Tennessee’s archaic 6-on-6 girls’ high school basketball.  As reported by CBS Sports, “The judge ordered the TSSAA to change to five-on-five basketball but didn’t issue an injunction, believing the organization would comply. Instead, the TSSAA appealed. Summitt vowed to never sign another Tennessee high school player as long as the TSSAA continued with six-on-six. The association changed its rule in 1979. You don’t mess with Pat Summitt.”

As a result of the work of these women I grew up believing “women can.”

While the 50’s and 60’s heralded the rise to prominence of the black athlete, and a focus on civil rights, and in the 70’s and 80’s the  prominence of the female athlete was in synch with a societal focus on women’s rights, sports in the 90’s and 2000’s seemed to exist in their own vacuum, largely detached from the larger world they occupied.

Leagues and revenues continued to grow.  And the kid, who was captivated by the larger-than-life personalities of Russell, Smith, Carlos, King, and Summitt grew up.  While the messages of inclusiveness and equality were not lost on the adult, the urgency of their messages began to fade.

As a white woman, I had to deal with misogynist attitudes and didn’t think much about racism.  I recall at one point during a stint in retail, I found myself dealing with an angry customer, who demanded to speak with the manager.  I told him I was the manager and tried to get to the root of the problem, but the man kept shouting and when Kevin, my assistant, walked by, the customer said, “Let me talk to him!”  I obliged.

The irate customer vented his grievances on poor Kevin, who calmly listened to his rant, and finally asked what he felt would be fair in order to rectify the problem.  The man made his demands, to which Kevin responded, “Ok, let me run it by my boss.”  The look on his face was priceless.

In the 1990’s, after years of pursuing dance part-time and working other jobs to support my passion, I opened my own ballroom dance studio, and in doing so, set out to right the wrongs of a largely corrupt business.  I did away with sales contracts and instead, paid my staff the highest hourly rate of any studio in Atlanta along with health insurance and paid vacations – benefits that were unheard of in that industry at the time, while keeping lesson prices affordable in order to attract a wide berth of customers.

The studio was a wonderfully diverse melting pot of creativity and inclusion.  For the most part, everyone seemed happy and appreciative of the sharing of cultures and experiences until one day I when was teaching a beginning group class, bigotry reared its ugly head.

Since there were more women than men in the class, I had the men form one line and the ladies another, with the first man in the line trying the newly learned dance step with the first woman in line, and then escorting her to the back of the line until each man had danced with each woman.

In the dance line, I noticed a white man bristling as he noticed that his next partner was to be a black woman.  When it was time for them to try the dance step, he stood, with arms crossed, staring at the woman.  “Take your partner,” I said in a sing-song voice while trying to figure out what to do.

“I ain’t dancin’ with no n****r,” he screamed.

Horrified, I said, “Follow me,” as I led him to the door of the studio and refunded his money. “Please leave, and do not return,” I said, adding, “and take your bigotry with you because there’s no room for it here.”  He glared at me with a look of contempt but without speaking, turned and walked out the door.

I returned to the class, to a round of applause from the other students.  I felt horrible, and I believe the other students did as well.  I apologized to the woman for the racist man’s behavior and I think some of the students did too, but the harm had already been done.  The woman had been hurt and humiliated, and as gracious as she was in accepting the apologies she never returned.

I’ve thought a lot about this over the years.  At the time, I viewed the incident, with the racist man, an unwelcome relic from times past.

I was wrong and horribly so.  Because as a white person I don’t encounter this behavior on a daily basis, I was foolishly naïve enough to believe that that it was disappearing.  God forgive me.

Those of us with a shred of conscience within our souls owe a tremendous debt to Colin Kaepernick for the wake up call.  I remember being shocked when I first heard that he’d sat for the national anthem.  I immediately asked, “Why?” and it didn’t take long for an answer.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Many of Kaepernick’s critics have said that he has a legitimate point or have otherwise validated his cause while objecting to his sitting and later kneeling during the anthem.  In my view, this holds no weight.

Immediately upon reading Kaepernick’s statement as to why he sat during the anthem, I took a look at his Twitter account; I scrolled for a long time through over a year’s worth of tweets.  Kaepernick had been speaking out for a long time, but I don’t think many of us were listening.  It took something of shock value to get the public’s attention on a large scale.  Kaep nailed it when he said:

“Most people don’t want to change. They’re comfortable and set in their ways. But in order to change, you have to be able to agitate people at times. And I think that’s something that’s very necessary for us to improve as a country.”

In undertaking a simple, peaceful protest, but by doing so in a way that caused a certain level of discomfort, he started a national discussion that cost him his livelihood, precipitated an NFL rule change, drew the ire of the president of the United States, and more than two years later, the conversation continues and grows.  Well done Mr. Kaepernick.

President Trump’s attack on Kaepernick and other black athletes, and his attempts to subvert their message only underscores the relevance and need for their brave advocacy.

This Independence Day points to a deeply torn and divided country in a fight for its soul.  Our Constitution proclaims liberty to all, within this nation founded on principles of freedom and justice, but it has not yet achieved its potential because these inalienable rights have not yet been distributed freely and equally to all members of our society.

Wars have been fought, and lives given in protection of the rights that many of us enjoy and at times even take for granted.  But others live in fear.  I’ve heard critics speak of honoring the police that protect us, and while I won’t go so far as to disparage and entire profession, there’s a huge problem when a pregnant black woman is shot in her own home after calling the police to report a burglary.

Say her name, Charleena Lyles.  She was a mother of four.  Her life mattered but it was senselessly snuffed out by those sworn to serve and protect.  In view of this, it’s fair to ask just who is included in the “us” being “served and protected.”  She wasn’t.

I can’t recall a single week since Kaepernick first began his protest in which I haven’t seen a report of an unarmed person of color being shot or otherwise brutalized by police.  This isn’t a new problem, it’s just a problem with a magnifying glass on it now thanks to outspoken athletes, who’ve made it impossible for people of conscience to ignore.

It takes courage to risk the career you’ve poured years of training, injuries, and competition to achieve, but that’s exactly what this generation of outspoken athletes is doing.

Most citizens don’t have the platform and thus the voice of professional athletes.  Those who use that voice and the platform of their sports for the betterment of human kind are athletics’ real MVPs and they’re putting action and money behind their words.

Colin Kaepernick made good on a million-dollar pledge to charitable organizations primarily devoted to criminal justice reform.  He didn’t just write a check to a famous, well-known charity, but spent a great deal of time and effort researching and locating smaller organizations where his donations would have the greatest reach and impact.

Chris  Long, who is one of the few white players to join the brigade donated his entire salary from the past season to enhance educational opportunities for marginalized students.  In the off-season he devotes time to his foundation, waterboys.org, digging wells to provide clean water for needy African communities.

Malcolm Jenkins and Anquan Boldin are among a growing number of athletes lobbying Congress for criminal justice and bail bond reforms.  Numerous players have spent substantial time with police departments in order to create better understanding and relationships between people of color and law enforcement.  Just last week Josh Norman and Demario Davis went on a 3 a.m. Walmart shopping spree for gifts to encourage and comfort detained migrant children who’ve been mercilessly snatched from their parents, and in some cases forced to face deportation hearings alone.  It’s impossible to overstate the amount of work professional athletes, perform within their own communities, largely out of public view but meaningful and important, nonetheless.

But, for all the wonderful things these guys are doing, without the activist voices coming from a highly visible platform, and Kaepernick’s knee, would we be diverted from our daily lives long enough to notice?  That’s a tough question to ask, and perhaps a bitter one to answer, but it’s relevant and it’s important.

On this Independence Day, while we contemplate the freedoms we enjoy, let’s not overlook the voices of activist athletes and sports as a powerful conduit for good.

I doubt when Bill Russell had the impromptu conversation with my father more than half a century ago that he had any inclination of its impact. Russell went on to make NBA history and became (as he still is) a powerful a civil rights champion. Dad continued his Air Force career, and involvement with sports and upon retirement from the Air Force volunteered as a city league coach for many years.

Several years ago I ran into a boy my father had coached; he was now a middle aged man.  John shared with me the profound influence Dad had on his life.  “Coach didn’t just teach us how to win basketball games, although he was good at that.  He taught us about sportsmanship and how to win and lose gracefully and how we can learn from our losses, but more than that, he taught us what it means to be a good man – to stand up for what is right, even when it’s not popular, and how to treat people with respect.  Those were the most important things your dad taught  I probably learned more from him than my own father.”

Perhaps that’s the biggest takeaway from my Independence Day ramblings.  Use the stage you have, whatever that might be to teach, and champion what is good and just and true.  Sports is the ideal venue for this.  And that’s why, as a people, we should be grateful, when athletes choose to use that platform in the quest for greater fulfillment of the justice and liberty proclaimed in our Constitution.  That’s a legacy of honor and one we can all share in if we help to carry the torch they’ve ignited.