In the Mexico Olympics of 1968, two U.S. athletes sent a powerful message to the world. At their medal ceremony, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two members of the American track team faced the flag during the American national anthem and raised their fists in what became known as the “Black Power Salute”.
“Since we are athletes...we used this so that the whole world could see the poverty of the black man in America,” Smith said in an interview after the event. Their statements came at a time when the country was in turmoil over the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement; however, one would not know it observing the Olympics.
Crowds booed the athletes as they left the podium, and days later, the International Olympics committee forced them to return to the United States. The grounds were simple: Smith and Carlos had disrespected the flag and inappropriately brought politics into the setting of athletics. In the debut of the 2016 American football season, the same argument is being leveled by critics against Colin Kaepernick, backup quarterback for the 49ers, who abstained from rising for the national anthem to protest police violence.
Cases like Kaepernick’s arise out of a supposed principle of professional sports that the field is a common ground, where differences are set aside in the spirit of competition. It leads to an expectation that athletes should “shut up and play”, thus discrediting their opinions and taking away their opportunity to leverage a powerful platform. This concept is fueled by the disinterest of entitled consumers and creates an averse stance to cultural development.
The reality for many professional athletes is that spectators sustain their entire careers; players make a profit through endorsements, ticket revenue, and merchandise sales. Taking part in controversial action means getting hit in the wallet. Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall lost 2 endorsement deals after taking a knee during the anthem. The politic-free atmosphere of sports is a direct consequence of its role as an entertainment service. Judgement by the public is common among all entertainment industries; however, athletes are prone to severe economic impacts simply because they rely directly on businesses that are seeking the largest net income. It is not a coincidence that players often rally behind causes such as poverty and children’s health that are unanimously agreed upon. Fans pay to watch athletes compete, not watch them attempt to influence political change.
This attitude results in players being unable to stand up for their beliefs without putting their careers at risk. The idea of avoiding controversy is intended to uphold neutrality, but in reality it creates an opposition to change. Walling off a part of our culture as void of conflict rejects the very concept of culture being inconstant. Kaepernick cannot look at the flag and ignore the part of our government that unjustly arrests and abuses African Americans.
"You are telling me that my position as a backup QB and being quiet is more important than people’s lives,” he said last Monday in response to criticism. Kaepernick's actions are bold and commendable; he is taking an enormous risk by standing out in such a volatile environment.
Some argue that the inclusion of the American flag and anthem in the protest shows a lack of appreciation for the work of the military, thus discrediting him. These powerful symbols of our country represent not only the troops, but our American ideals, culture, and government. In other words, they encompass both the positive and negative of our country. Americans must suppress their knee-jerk reaction to any disrespect towards our flag and realize Kaepernick’s message. The United States is constantly improving, and he is pushing the country to accept the need for reform in the law enforcement system.
Politics and culture invade every part of society. By attempting to prohibit controversy, professional sports enterprises inadvertently take an opposed rather than neutral stance to the flow of change. Unfortunately, athletes have challenging and risky careers that depend considerably on public image; their freedom of speech is thus indirectly encroached upon. While it is easy to dismiss this as an inevitable part of society, Kaepernick has defied it over the past weeks. Instead of fizzling out, his actions have sparked many other players to join him. The public has subsequently become acclimated to the protests and, to an extent, accepted their validity. Kaepernick displays the potential for the sports industry to open the gates to controversy- if popular figures have the courage to speak up.