Be it the Black Lives Matter movement or protests against the Vietnam war, the prolific men and women of the sports world have historically been some of the most effective leaders for social change. After all, their platform is practically unparalleled.
It’s no surprise that a slew of sportspeople recently showed their solidarity for Stephen Curry, the star player for Golden State Warriors, when he decided to turn down Trump’s invitation to the White House thanks to his checkered history with civil and social rights so far, causing a petty president to retract his team’s invite.
In a lucrative industry like sports, the idea of taking socio-political sides is a dangerous decision; one that can make or break the career of a multi-million dollar player practically overnight if there’s some hostility involved. But for the majority, conscience takes precedence over a pay check. Here’s a list of ten pivotal moments that basketball players, footballers and boxers alike all took their social and political views to work with them, giving valued causes the recognition they desperately deserved.
The Phoenix Suns Protesting Arizona's Immigration Laws
In 2010, Arizona’s most respected basketball team, The Phoenix Suns, made headlines simply by switching up their on-court uniform. During their May 5 game against the San Antonio Spurs, the team’s updated jerseys bore the phrase "Los Suns," both in celebration of Cinco de Mayo and in retaliation against SB 1070, their home state’s controversial bill (which eventually passed a few months later) to tackle illegal immigration.
SB 1070 caused controversy for the way it appeared to justify racial profiling as a way of identifying possible illegal immigrants in Arizona. The Suns’s owner Robert Sarver said the group decided to don the jerseys to show "sartorial solidarity” with Latin America, and, despite pressure from political groups and basketball bosses, the Spurs supported their decision too.
Lebron James Showing Solidarity With Trayvon Martin
When Trayvon Martin was shot dead by George Zimmerman in February 2012, activist groups around the world gathered to highlight the severe lack of justice served for the seemingly unprovoked murder of a black teenager. As the man who shot him was allowed to walk free, claiming his actions were merely self-defense, public figures began to show solidarity in their own way.
The most poignant move came from basketball legend LeBron James and his Miami Heat teammates, who posed for a striking photo ahead of a game against the Detroit Pistons. The team stood in hooded sweatshirts, just like Trayvon did as he was shot, with their heads bowed and faces hidden from view. James took it one step further, delivering a touching eulogy by scribing his sneakers with "RIP Trayvon Martin" in memory of the murdered Floridian teen.
Colin Kaepernick Taking a Knee During the National Anthem
Before the wave of sportspeople and famous faces began taking a knee in support of Black Lives Matter and as a sign of their disapproval of police brutality and the Trump administration, former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick first made his point in the summer of 2016. During his games, the media picked up on Colin’s decision to sit rather than stand as "The Star-Spangled Banner" played. When asked to justify his actions, he told the media that “[he was] not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
He, along with teammate Eric Reid, later decided to kneel as a respectful sign of his peaceful protest. Although their actions were supported by a slew of fellow footballers, Colin has been a free agent player, unsigned since his contract with the 49ers ended last year. Some argue it’s because of his strong political views.
Pat Tillman, Who Left the NFL to Join the US Army
With the promise of nationwide adulation and a place in the football history books, few people are brave enough to shun a multi-million dollar NFL contract and sign up to the US armed forces. That’s exactly what Pat Tillman did in May 2002.
Having been a star football player with a $3.6 million contract on the table with the Arizona Cardinals, Pat Tillman was motivated by the events of September 11 to become a soldier instead. He fought for his country in Afghanistan alongside his baseball player brother Kevin. Two years later, he was sadly killed in a friendly fire incident and was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in honor of his service.
Derrick Rose Wearing an "I Can't Breathe" T-Shirt for Eric Garner
Having previously stood alongside the Miami Heat during their tribute to Trayvon Martin, the then-Chicago Bulls player Derrick Rose once again made headlines for his stark and moving homage to the life of Eric Garner. Garner was the New York man whose final words, spoken as he was held in a brutal chokehold by a police officer, became synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Influenced by his childhood growing up in a violent neighborhood of Chicago, Derrick wasn’t the only basketball player to wear the shirt: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and the entire Lakers team followed suit with the approval of the then President Barack Obama.
The Dodgers' Shawn Green Sitting out on Yom Kippur
Widely considered one of the greatest Jewish baseball players around, Shawn Green was at the top of his game when he made the decision to place his religion ahead of his profession. In the midst of his four year stint with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Shawn announced that he would be sitting out of any games that landed on Yom Kippur, the holiest and most significant day in the Jewish calendar.
While most players may forgo their faith to benefit their weighty pay packets, Shawn wanted to set a strong example for his young Jewish fans, meaning that he missed out on some of the most significant games of the season. When asked why he felt his stance was necessary, he told The New York Times that he did it to “say that baseball… isn't bigger than your religion and your roots.”
Muhammad Ali Taking a Stand Against the Vietnam War
Muhammad Ali is without doubt the greatest figure to grace the ring, but the legendary boxer is just as famous for balancing his lethal agility as a fighter with his calm and considered temperament. It all came full circle back in 1967, when the heavyweight champion refused to join the American military as the country became involved in the Vietnam War.
Citing his Muslim faith as the main reason for it, the US forces didn’t take too kindly to such a famous face being so fervently anti-war. Ali was slapped with a $10k fine, was stripped of his title and banned from boxing for three years, only narrowly avoiding jail time. They were forced to eat their words, though: seven years later, Muhammad Ali KO-ed his opponent George Forman and rightfully reclaimed his prestigious heavyweight title anyway.
Venus Williams Fighting for Gender Equality at Wimbledon
It may be the most prestigious tennis competition in the world, but for far too long, Wimbledon had an outdated approach to rewarding its female competitors. Back in the late nineties, the prize money for the winner of the men’s competition was $1.13 million, while the woman who won would walk home with around $50,000 less.
Even when Venus Williams arrived at Wimbledon in 1998 for her first ever set, she made this discrepancy very clear. Over the course of almost a decade, she would go on to continue pushing the board behind the tennis competition to sort out their mistake. In 2007, she was finally successful, and after years of campaigning saw the prize money for both the men and women of Wimbledon equalled.
Andrew Hawkins's T-Shirt Protest for Tamir Rice and John Crawford
In a move that would come to further expose the engrained racism that still exists in the 21st century America, Cleveland Browns player Andrew Hawkins received a serious amount of backlash when, in 2014, he entered the Browns stadium wearing a t-shirt bearing the phrase “Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford III.” The shirt was a tribute to two black Ohio boys, aged 12 and 22 respectively, who had been shot dead by police for carrying toy guns.
Andrew later justified wearing the shirt in an emotional statement to the press, saying he feared what had happened to Tamir Rice could, one day, happen to his own 2-year-old son if no action was taken. The Cleveland police force, however, demanded an apology, with their associate president Jeff Folmer calling the move “pretty pathetic.” Needless to say, the masses, and the Cleveland Brown team, sided with Andrew.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos Raising Their Fists During the Star-Spangled Banner
It was one of the original protests in sport broadcasted by worldwide media, as well as one of the most controversial. During the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, the African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists on the winners’ podium as "The Star Spangled Banner" played, in a fashion similar to the Black Power salute.
Their actions prompted a split reaction among the sporting crowd back home. While a few supported Smith and Carlos, the pair were criticized by the conservative, mainstream media and their families were targeted with death threats. A strong act of defiance against the flaws of society on a public platform, it seemed that most couldn’t stomach the bravery of Smith and Carlos at the time, but their protest has gone down in the history books as one of the most legendary and important.
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