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The active political body in popular culture

This is an excerpt from Sociocultural Issues in Sport and Physical Activity by Robert Pitter,David Andrews & Joshua Newman.

By Michael D. Giardina and A. Lamont Williams

I don’t mean to get heavy, but . . . we gotta say something. —Dave Chappelle, 2020

Muhammad Ali. Tommie Smith. John Carlos. Three athletes whose careers are indelibly linked with expressions of public political engagement. For Ali—routinely cited as one of the most important figures of the 20th century—it was, in addition to his gifted and graceful boxing acumen, his refusal on religious grounds to be drafted into the U.S. military during the Vietnam War that moved him beyond the scope of a mere successful athlete into the realm of a cultural icon. His physical actions were amplified by his eloquent forthrightness, as when he stated,

No, I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder, kill, and burn other people to simply help continue the domination of white slavemasters over dark people the world over. This is the day and age when such evil injustice must come to an end. . . . 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 and denied simple human rights?

Ali was arrested and stripped of his heavyweight title belt and his boxing license; he did not fight again for four years. With the passage of time, however, Ali is now almost universally celebrated for his contributions to civil rights (see Abdel-Shehid, 2002; Marqusee, 2005; Remnick, 1999).

In the case of Smith and Carlos, it was their public actions on the medal stand following the 200-meter sprint at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City that catapulted them into the global spotlight. The iconic image of the pair—heads bowed, gloved fists raised, with the Australian silver medalist Peter Norman looking on wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights button in silent support—was a watershed moment for athlete activism during the Civil Rights era. At the time, however, both Smith and Carlos were vilified in the press as being “black-skinned stormtroopers,” (see Zirin, 2012) expelled from the Olympic Village, and sent back to the United States, where they suffered racist criticism and faced death threats. Political philosopher Cornel West (2008) reminds us, however, that their actions were far from anti-American. As he recounts,

A lot of people thought that was just “Black Power.” No. That was Black people affirming their dignity. So it wasn’t anti-American; it was anti-injustice in America. . . . The fundamental lesson of what they did is the courage to hope, because what they did; this was a sign of hope, and that’s a beautiful thing.

To the list of Ali, Smith, and Carlos we can now add Colin Kaepernick (see Chapin & Montez de Oca, 2019; Walton-Fisette, 2018). In the third preseason game of the 2016 NFL season, 

Kaepernick—who had been the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers since 2013 when he led the team to a Super Bowl appearance—sat on the bench during the playing of the national anthem in protest against racial injustice in the United States, and specifically police brutality. Thereafter, he switched from sitting to kneeling, doing so for the remainder of the season with a mix of both praise and denunciation. Following the 2016 season, the 49ers indicated he was going to be released from his contract. Though framed as a team moving on from a player following a tough year in the win–loss column, many observers concluded that his political stance was getting too hot for the organization to handle. That Kaepernick, who thereafter became a free agent in the prime of his playing years, was not signed by any other team and has never played in the NFL since lends credence to the notion that he was blackballed by teams in the league for his politics.

Yet the act of players taking a knee didn’t stop with Kaepernick out of the league, and in September 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump brought Kaepernick’s protest into mainstream political discourse when he exclaimed at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when someone disrespects our flag, to say, ‘get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired.’” (It should go without saying that Kaepernick was not protesting the flag, but using the act of kneeling during the anthem to draw attention to the cause of injustice and police brutality.) And though Kaepernick remained the subject of much critique, he was unfortunately prescient, because the very act that resulted in his being blackballed from the NFL—kneeling—captivated public attention in 2020, when George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on the man’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. And while the naked brutality of the killing—caught on camera—was the flashpoint that led to a worldwide uprising that accelerated a global conversation about policing, racial injustice, and systemic oppression, his was just one in a far-too-long line of racial injustice:

Eric Garner.

Tamir Rice.

Michael Brown.

Philando Castile.

Breonna Taylor.

Trayvon Martin.

Ahmaud Arbery.

And hundreds more.

Reams of paper could be exhausted writing about these individuals, and they all deserve to have their respective stories chronicled in far better detail than could ever be achieved in the span of a few pages. What we can achieve, however, is a discussion of how the sporting body intersects with and becomes a political body—not via representational logics alone, but through materially consequential statements and actions.

The active political body has a long history within sport and physical culture, whether because of explicit political activism (e.g., Smith and Carlos), or because by their very existence they became highly politicized actors in public discourse (e.g., boxer Jack Johnson in the early 1900s). Over the last 8 to 10 years we have witnessed athletes increasingly willing to speak out about current injustices—a rather stark departure from the 1980s and 1990s. This turn could, arguably, be attributed to the killing of Black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012. Martin, who was wearing a hoodie and eating Skittles, was shot and killed in the gated community where he was visiting relatives because a resident viewed him as suspect and “up to no good” (see Hill, 2012). In response, the Miami Heat of the NBA posed for a team picture wearing team-branded hoodies with their heads bowed; they also wrote “RIP Trayvon” on their basketball shoes (Rogers, 2012). This show of solidarity was organized by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, both players for the Heat at the time. Said James of his activism,

It started with the Trayvon Martin situation. The reason why it started with that is having kids of my own, having boys of my own, it hit home for me to see the story and to think that if my boy left home and he never returned — that kind of hit a switch. From that point on, I knew that my voice and my platform had to be used for more than just sports. (CNN Tonight with Don Lemon, July 30, 2018)

His activism may have started with his response to Martin’s death, but it assuredly did not end there for James. Just two years later, in 2014, Eric Garner was killed by police in Staten Island, New York, when questioned about selling loose cigarettes. James—who by then had moved back to the Cleveland Cavaliers—wore a shirt emblazoned with the words “I Can’t Breathe” (Garner’s last words) during pregame warmups, stating that his reason for doing so was to pay respects to Garner’s family. James has also spoken out about racism in the United States at an increasing rate. In 2017, prior to the start of the NBA Finals, his home in Los Angeles was vandalized with racist graffiti (including the n-word). James responded in a press conference by stating:

No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough. . . . We got a long way to go for us as a society and for us as African Americans until we feel equal in America.

Further, he leveraged his social media platform on political issues, including calling out U.S. President Donald Trump on Twitter, which according to Skiver (2017) was the most retweeted post by an athlete in 2017. For this James was castigated by conservative political broadcaster Laura Ingraham to “shut up and dribble”—another in a long line of attempts to police athletes’ speech (particularly that of Black athletes) by reducing their agency to playing a sport and not having an opinion. And, in 2020, following the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was jogging in a neighborhood near his home in an Atlanta suburb, James took to Instagram to exclaim:

We’re literally hunted EVERYDAY/EVERYTIME we step foot outside the comfort of our homes! Can’t even go for a damn jog man! Like WTF man are you kidding me?!?!?!?!? No man fr ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!!!! I’m sorry Ahmaud (Rest In Paradise) and my prayers and blessings sent to the heavens above to your family!!

And though broader athlete activism was largely sporadic—at least in a public sense—in the intervening years (e.g., the aftermath of the Michael Brown killing), or limited to a specific athlete and their cause (e.g., WNBA player Maya Moore taking a sabbatical from the game in 2019-2020 to advocate for prosecutorial reforms and the release of Jonathan Irons from prison), something different happened following George Floyd’s death: The streets woke up. From Minneapolis to Portland, Tallahassee to Asheville, New York to Los Angeles, citizens took to the streets in way not seen in a sustained, en masse manner in the United States since the 1960s. As Chappelle (2020) put it, “this was the streets talking”—and it did so both with words and, importantly, the body. In those streets were also athletes, putting their bodies in the literal line of fire. As Amanda Mull (2020) wrote in The Atlantic,

As Americans protested police brutality and the killing of George Floyd over the past week, they were met with tear gas and law-enforcement batons. The whole ghastly spectacle—eyesight lost to rubber bullets, people beaten and sometimes killed in the streets, journalists arrested on television—was broadcast live on platforms like Twitter and Instagram. (para. 1)

Let us be clear—these were not “riots” as conservative media would have it; if anything, this was protest as popular uprising. The graphic horror of Floyd’s death—occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic and against the backdrop of the racially charged Trump presidency—both catalyzed protests and also served as tipping point toward normalizing (mainstreaming) a forceful counternarrative to policy brutality and, with it, White supremacy.

Joshua Newman and Rachel Shields (2013) have argued that the street is “a vital political stage” where “the physical body, material and symbolic space unit, and public and private lives are laid bare” (p. 521). We leave questions of space and urban geography to other authors in this volume (see chapter 12); here we focus on the bodies in the street and the political capital they bring to bear on the state, which signify, at the very least, the veneer of change.

NBA players in particular have been active in the streets during these protests. High-profile players, including Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics) and Damion Lillard (Portland Trailblazers), publicly and visibly located themselves as protestors at various mass gatherings, with Brown stating: “First and foremost, I’m a Black man and I’m a member of this community. . . . We’re raising awareness for some of the injustices we’ve been seeing” (quoted in Deb, 2020). Importantly, NBA teams—which typically operate as conservative business operations—took to social media to express outrage and support, as in the case of the Washington Wizards organization, which released the following statement:

A united statement from our players: WE WILL NO LONGER TOLERATE THE ASSASSINATION OF PEOPLE OF COLOR IN THIS COUNTRY. WE WILL NO LONGER ACCEPT INEFFECTIVE GOVERNMENT LEADERS WHO ARE TONE-DEAF, LACK COMPASSION OR RESPECT FOR COMMUNITIES OF COLOR. WE WILL NO LONGER ACCEPT THE ABUSE OF POWER FROM LAW ENFORCEMENT. WE WILL NO LONGER SHUT UP AND DRIBBLE. (Washington Wizards Twitter account, 5/31/20, capitalization in original).

Such responses have not been limited to the NBA. NASCAR auto racing, which throughout its history has served as a theater of whiteness and a “safe space” to deploy the Confederate flag (see Newman & Giardina, 2011), announced that the flag would be banned from its spaces; driver Bubba Wallace, who called into question the racing league’s record in dealing with the flag, competed in a race with #BlackLivesMatter emblazoned on the side of his car. The NCAA Southeastern Conference (SEC), which includes member institutions in the deep South, informed the state of Mississippi it would consider banning championship events from the state unless it removes the Confederate flag image from its state flag; athletes at various universities have begun to make explicit demands over changing policies or removing symbolic reminders of racism and oppression; and numerous global brands such as Nike, Ben & Jerry’s, and Google have shown solidarity with the Floyd protests. And while these and other brands may be joining the chorus, Mull (2020) reminds that “it’s still uncertain what they intend to offer—what they can offer—beyond greater awareness of their existence and vague sense of virtue” (para. 5). However, that it is happening at all is not lost on Mull, who suggests at minimum that they are “trying to listen to their communities” (para. 20). And without bodies in the streets, actively and with political force, showing up, this would not have been possible.