The notion that professional sports has anything to do with social justice and human rights would be seen as laughable by most members of the athletic community. Sports, we are told, are about escape, excitement, and a respite from the ills of the world. This is why Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren said, “I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people’s accomplishments. The front page has nothing but [people’s] failures.”
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But there is a rich tradition of athletes who commit to a life of good works, as well as “jocks for justice” who use the platform of sports to speak out about human rights. The examples are as diverse as they are extensive. From civil rights advocate Paul Robeson to suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, access to sports was central to their struggles for liberation. As Robeson remembered of his days desegregating the Rutgers University football team, “When I was out on a football field or in a classroom or just anywhere else, I was not there just on my own. I was the representative of a lot of Negro boys who wanted to play football and wanted to go to college, and as their representative, I had to show that I could take whatever was handed out.”
Or as Cady Stanton wrote in the women’s magazine The Lily, rejecting claims of a man’s “physical superiority”: “We cannot say what the woman might be physically, if the girl were allowed all the freedom of the boy in romping, climbing, swimming, playing hoop and ball.”
Robeson and Cady Stanton were mere harbingers to a century defined by a rich, if under-discussed, history of athletes impacting the fight for social justice. It’s impossible to think of the early days of the civil rights movement without considering Jackie Robinson, the African-American baseball player who broke the color line when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson, said Martin Luther King Jr., was the original “pilgrim that walks in the lonesome byways toward the high road of freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”
We also can’t understand the movement against the Vietnam War without considering the great boxer and draft resister Muhammad Ali. He didn’t want to go to Vietnam: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs? … The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people, or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom, and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me—I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”
Consider also the black-fisted salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Far more than a specific moment, Smith and Carlos were part of a movement known as the Olympic Project for Human Rights, formed by Harry Edwards (see “More Than a Game,” page 22) to combat racism in sports as well as throughout the United States. The OPHR organized around concrete demands, such as the hiring of more black coaches, disinviting South Africa and Rhodesia to the Olympics, and the removal of International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage, but they also had a broader goal in mind, as their founding statement put it:
We must no longer allow this country to use a few so-called Negroes to point out to the world how much progress she has made in solving her racial problems when the oppression of Afro-Americans is greater than it ever was. We must no longer allow the sports world to pat itself on the back as a citadel of racial justice when the racial injustices of the sports world are infamously legendary …. [A]ny black person who allows himself to be used in the above matter allows racist whites the luxury of resting assured that those black people in the ghettos are there because that is where they want to be. So we ask, why should we run in Mexico only to crawl home?
We also cannot understand the women’s rights movement without considering Billie Jean King. King was a voice for a feminism that demanded equal pay, more endorsements, better training and locker room facilities, and respect. She was an activist and participant in the women’s movement for equal rights. In the words of tennis champion Martina Navratilova, she “embodied the crusader fighting a battle for all of us. She was carrying the flag; it was all right to be a jock.”
This history only matters because today it is a living history. We have already seen in recent years a new generation of “jocks for justice” who have lost the yoke of apathy and spoken out about the world. National Basketball Association players such as Steve Nash, Etan Thomas, and Joakim Noah raised objections against the war in Iraq. National Football League players Scott Fujita and Adalius Thomas did the same. Even Ultimate Fighting Champion Jeff “The Snowman” Monson hands out anti-war pamphlets on his way to the “Octagon” arena and was out protesting at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis last summer.
Olympic athletes such as 2006 gold medal speed skater Joey Cheek organized under the banner of Team Darfur—an international group of athletes who raise awareness about the crisis in Darfur—to protest Beijing being given the 2008 Olympics without dissent. It’s a bold new world. As Navratilova told Sports Illustrated last September, “It’s like athletes have woken up to what actors and musicians have known forever: I have this amazing platform—why not use it?”
Sports is once again becoming contested political space. If fans and more athletes take advantage of this space, we could be looking at an era when the sports page alone can’t contain the stories in the sports world.
Dave Zirin is author of Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports and A People’s History of Sports in the United States. His weekly column appears at www.edgeofsports.com.
‘Our Voices Will Not Be Silenced’
Joey Cheek uses his Olympic fame to press for justice in Darfur.
On the eve of his trip to China for the 2008 Olympics, Joey Cheek received a disturbing phone call—Chinese authorities informed him that his visa was revoked without explanation, and he was no longer allowed to travel to Beijing. As a 2006 gold medalist in speed skating, Cheek anticipated attending the Olympic Games to support the athletes. As cofounder and president of Team Darfur, and an outspoken critic of the human rights violations in Darfur—as well as the Chinese government’s involvement in purchasing oil from and selling weapons to Sudan’s regime—Cheek was prepared to make his objections known in a diplomatic and respectful way. The Chinese government did not give him the chance.
“As an Olympic alumnus, I was invited to speak on a panel discussion about Olympism and conflict resolution ... but I didn’t have any protest plan,” Cheek told National Public Radio’s Melissa Block soon after his visa was revoked. He also planned to speak with U.N. ambassadors and International Olympic Committee members. Instead, Cheek spent the few days before the Olympics telling the press his story—a fitting introduction to the human rights violations in Darfur that China’s government supports and the lack of freedom of speech in China. Indeed, the 72 athletes at the 2008 Olympics affiliated with Team Darfur were told they would be viewed as suspect individuals by Chinese authorities. This kind of censorship is “disgusting,” said Cheek in the NPR interview.
While the Chinese government kept a tight lid on Team Darfur during the Olympics, their actions offered Cheek and the organization a platform to continue their work in advocating for the freedom and justice of refugees in Darfur. Today, the organization of more than 400 athletes from around the world is raising awareness about the atrocities in Darfur and raising funds to send to the refugees, demonstrating that while censorship prevailed for a short while, their voices could not be silenced forever. —Jeannie Choi