Having spent 50 plus years working to use the power of sport to bring about positive social change, for me Sunday was the most important sports day since Muhammad Ali said he would not go to fight in Vietnam. It evoked memories of Tommie Smith and John Carlos protesting at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics; of Arthur Ashe protesting against South Africa. But they are among a handful of former athletes who were able to publicly argue for social justice without fear for their careers.
For me the NFL rose enormously in public stature as soon as Roger Goodell criticized President Trump for making a “divisive statement” about the NFL and the protests. Trump had, of course, called on owners to fire any “son of a bitch" that knelt during the anthem. At the end of the day of protest on Sunday, Commissioner Goodell said how proud he was about how the League and its players reacted to Donald Trump.
The day started in London in the game between the Jaguars and Ravens. Jacksonville Jaguars players locked arms during the Anthem prior to the start of the game. Several knelt with their arms locked. Jaguars owner, Shahid Khan, who supported Trump in the election, locked arms with his players as he acted in unity as the first owner who stepped forward with their players. He would not be the last that day.
But I believe it really started slightly over a year ago with the death of Muhammad Ali.
America, including its athletes, watched as 100,000 people poured out into the streets of Louisville on the day of Ali's service. Another 16,000 sat for hours mesmerized listening to inspirational speeches in the Yum Center about the life he led. While some may have been there to celebrate Ali's life as a boxer, most were there to thank him for his life of service and the risks he took to make this a better nation. When he refused to go to Vietnam in 1967 he essentially gave up his career. Facing prison and going three years without boxing, no one could have imagined that he could come back to reclaim his title. And even after he did, throughout his life he took a stand on social justice issues important to his country and his people. He stood for all people: African-Americans and whites, Muslims and Christians and Jews. All people. I have been lucky enough to be friends with Muhammad and Lonnie Ali for decades so my wife Ann, our daughter Emily and I attended the funeral services in Louisville and saw the masses of people pour their hearts out for this once-in-a-lifetime human being. It was sad but also a celebration and an inspiration.
Athletes watched and took note of the public’s reaction and learned of all he had done through the hours of broadcasts and pages of newspaper coverage of Ali's life.
Then came ESPY's when ESPN gave LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade and Chris Paul the platform to address the recent shootings of blacks by white police officers. Communities across the country were facing massive protests. I was moved by their eloquence and courage and grateful that ESPN gave them that enormous platform.
I believe that all of that set the stage for Collin Kaepernick to risk his career by kneeling for the national anthem as the 2016 NFL season started. As soon as I heard about it, I thought to myself that this is likely the end of his career. That was apparently the case as no NFL team signed him in 2017. This was a perfect storm coming together and when President Trump, a person who has made many outrageous statements through his campaign and throughout his presidency, insulted the NFL's players. He has done and said many things as President that I thought I would never hear an American President say. His calling for the firing of protesting NFL players by asking NFL owners to get that “son of a bitch” off the field was another thing I thought I would never hear. But there it was, hardly presidential to describe Americans who were using their right of free speech to protest. The storm broke. Games across the NFL had anthem demonstrations with locked arms, kneeling players, owners and coaches joining the players in a show of unity. Pittsburg, Seattle and Tennessee players stayed in the locker room during the anthem. The WNBA Sparks did the same during the WNBA Finals Sunday. Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first Major League Baseball player to take a knee during the anthem. The NBA has always supported players’ activism against racism and just this weekend, Golden State, the NBA Champions, found out that President Trump said they would not be invited to the White House after it looked like Steph Curry was joining Kevin Durant in refusing to go to the White House if the invitation was extended.
I heard several Trump supporters on TV panels criticize the NFL for not taking strong stands against players who committed violence against women. There is no doubt that the NFL’s historical record on this evokes criticism although it has improved significantly since the Ray Rice saga. But on each panel where the criticism was made, another panelist quickly pointed out recordings of candidate Trump during the campaign showing this misogynistic man who proudly described acts of what are clearly definable as sexual assault.
My only apprehension is that the messages of the protest remain clear: it is about the enormous racial injustice in America. We live in a nation where, according to the Institute for Policy Studies, the aggregate wealth of all 42 million African-Americans is less than the aggregate wealth of the 100 people on the Forbes list of the 100 wealthiest Americans. How is that possible, in 2017? That creates the stage for racism to spew all its other many horrible effects.
It makes the owners keys here. Nine NFL owners were significant donors to Trump’s campaign. Twenty-eight of the 32 owners made statements critical of the President and supportive of the players. In the Monday night game, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones knelt with the entire Cowboys team.
It is my hope that all the leagues create community forums in each franchise city with players, police, local officials, civil rights leaders and community leaders to openly discuss the issues and to help us understand each other, as we do not seem to do now. Some NBA teams have done that. We heard the word unity this weekend over and over again. Let that be our goal but it must include facing racism head on.
Is that too much to ask of sport? It was 70 years ago that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. That was seven years before the Supreme Court ruled against segregated schools and more than 15 years before the major civil rights legislation of the 1960s. As I said in the beginning, I have spent more than 50 years working to use the power of sport to bring about positive social change. In those 50 years only a handful of athletes came forward. Now there is an army of people who are just being asked about how they played that Sunday or if their team will make it to the Super Bowl. They are being asked about racism and social justice and have been transformed from unidimensional human beings into multi-dimensional human beings. I promise you that is a good feeling and what we saw Sunday was the beginning of a social transformation in our nation.