OPED: Protests push us to face racial injustice
The writer is addressing the question, "Have the national anthem protests carried out by athletes been good for democracy?"
When NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began refusing to stand for the national anthem, many media pundits and others chastised him for it. An important discussion about race, class and violence in this country nearly fell into the news-cycle churn of a divisive election year.
But then something surprising took place. Many in the sports world closed ranks around Kaepernick and supported his right to protest even as they continued to stand, many with hands over their hearts, for "The Star-Spangled Banner."
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, "I absolutely understand why they're doing what they're doing, and I respect their courage for what they've done."
Popovich, who served in the Air Force and is the new coach of the U.S. men's national basketball team, added that, "The important thing that Kaepernick and others have done is to keep it in the conversation. ... With our 24/7 news, things seem to drift."
Chip Kelly, Kaepernick's coach, said that his quarterback's decision was "his right as a citizen."
Kaepernick, however, certainly isn't the first prominent athlete to use his stage to take a stand against racial inequality.
At July's ESPY Awards, basketball players Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul took the stage to urge their fellow athletes to become socially more involved. Serena Williams, Michael Irvin and others soon raised their voices, too.
From the black power salutes by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico City Olympics to Muhammad Ali's stand against the Vietnam War, time and again, the sports world's best have led by example.
"Generations ago, legends like Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson ... set a model for what athletes should stand for," Paul told the audience at the ESPYs. "So we choose to follow in their footsteps."
A half-century ago, the St. Louis Cardinals were one of the best teams in baseball for a number of important reasons. Their roster not only included blacks and white but Latino stars, too. Long before Jesse Jackson coined the phrase, the Cardinals "were the rainbow coalition of baseball," as Bob Gibson once said.
The morning after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968, Gibson got into a heated conversation with his catcher, Tim McCarver. The future Hall of Fame pitcher told McCarver that he couldn't possibly comprehend what it was like to be a black person and that it was impossible for whites, no matter how well intentioned, to totally overcome prejudice.
To his credit, McCarver, who had grown up in Memphis, Tenn., where King had been struck down, refused to let the conversation end there. In doing so, McCarver found himself in "the unfamiliar position of arguing that the races were equal and that we were all the same."
Years later, McCarver wrote that "Bob and I reached a meeting of the minds that morning. That was the kind of talk we often had on the Cardinals."
And that's the kind of frank, honest talk we need again.
Of course, many sports stars in the 1960s were criticized and worse for taking a public stand.
Smith and Carlos were stripped of their medals. Ali was banished for years from boxing for refusing to enter the draft. It took the country years to acknowledge the courage and even the wisdom in the positions they took.
"Their powerful silent protest in the 1968 Games was controversial," President Barack Obama recently said of Smith and Carlos, "but it woke folks up and created greater opportunity for those that followed."
We find ourselves at a similar crossroads today, and a growing number of athletes and coaches realize it. They have dared to hold a mirror up to the rest of us, urging us to do better as a nation. It's our loss if we refuse to heed their call.
—Tim Wendel is the author of 11 books, including "Summer of '68: The Season That Changed Baseball, and America, Forever." He is the writer in residence at Johns Hopkins University's Washington, D.C., campus.