George Floyd murder: USA's long history of activist athletes who refused to 'shut up and play'

As American athletes take to the streets and raise their voices on social media protesting the killing of George Floyd, a look at USA's long history of sportstars who refused to 'shut up and play'

FP Sports June 03, 2020 19:23:54 IST
George Floyd murder: USA's long history of activist athletes who refused to 'shut up and play'

As NBA team after NBA team put out statements in recent days protesting the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, one line from Washington Wizards’ release stood out.

George Floyd murder USAs long history of activist athletes who refused to shut up and play

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James took the court wearing shoes emblazoned with the word 'EQUALITY' IN 2017. When asked about the shoes, he referenced US President Donald Trump as the reason for the move. AP

“We will no longer shut up and dribble,” read the statement. It is no coincidence that the statement, which was actually drafted by the Wizards players rather than the management, uses that particular phrase. It gained popularity when, in early 2018, Fox News’ anchor Laura Ingraham told LeBron James to ‘shut up and dribble’ in response to his scathing comments on US President Donald Trump.

As protests rage across the United States of America over the killing of Floyd, NBA teams, players and staff of all races, have been unanimous in their messaging: they are not here to simply play basketball and entertain people. This has been reflected in the numerous NBA players taking to the streets to join protestors: be it Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown driving 15 hours to lead a protest in his hometown in Atlanta or Karl-Anthony Towns attending a rally in Minneapolis barely 15 days after the death of his mother due to COVID-19.

Mixing sports and politics   

“…when it comes to Election Day, or any other day that involves expressing personal opinions about social or political issues, athletes are relegated to a locker room ghetto and told to keep their politics as private as a jockstrap. Financially, mixing sports and politics is bad for business,” six-time NBA champion Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once wrote in Time magazine.

A political activist since his college days, Abdul-Jabbar was one of the first NBA stars to air his political opinions publicly at a time when it was not fashionable to do so. Since then, many NBA superstars from LeBron to Kyrie Irving to Kevin Durant have used their platform to raise their voices, amplified by the reach of social media.

This includes players like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Derrick Rose wearing ‘I can’t breathe’ T-shirts in 2014 (referencing the last words of Eric Garner, who died after being choked to death by a policeman), and teams like Golden State Warriors refusing to visit the White House after winning the NBA title during the Donald Trump presidency.

Paying the price

LeBron, Durant and Abdul-Jabbar could consider themselves lucky. Their political opinions have led to no real ramifications, barring some angry fist-waving from the right-wingers and some angrier tweets from trolls on the internet.

For athletes like Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick, the simple crime of speaking out nearly meant an end of their careers. The outspoken Ali refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War in 1967 on religious grounds and saw his heavyweight championship taken off him. Not just that, he was barred from fighting in USA and leaving the country, rendering him almost broke. In time, Ali rebounded, resurrecting his career and cementing his legacy as one of the greatest American athletes of all time.

Kaepernick, on the other hand, still remains out of a job after making waves by kneeling during the national anthem in 2016. The quarterback, who was then playing for the San Francisco 49ers, has since become the face of a Nike campaign, but found no NFL team willing to take a chance on signing him.

While the image of Kaepernick kneeling will remain ingrained in public memory for a long time, the sight of Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on the podium at the 1968 Olympics, fists raised, feet covered in just black socks and heads bowed, is similarly iconic and, just as Kaepernick’s actions, proved to be devastating to the lives of the two protagonists.


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Gold medallist Smith and bronze winner Carlos, branded ‘black-skinned stormtroopers’ back home, later said their gesture symbolised black poverty and oppression against them. The duo was kicked out of the Olympic Village at the Mexico City Olympics. They were condemned back home and received death threats. It was only in the 2000s that they started to get their due. While Kaepernick has received backing from brands like Nike and other high-profile athletes back home, Smith and Carlos were left to fend for themselves, with hardly any institutional backing in the face of widespread condemnation.

What has changed in the 50 years between the Smith-Carlos and the Kaepernick protests? Social media and the internet have ensured that athletes now aren’t forgotten if conventional media and the establishment decide to ignore them. But there’s a bigger factor at play: endorsement money from brands. In 2015, LeBron signed a $1 billion deal with Nike.

With so much money being offered to athletes from brands, they no longer put everything on the line when they air their views.

Sports and politics

George Floyd murder USAs long history of activist athletes who refused to shut up and play

Former NBA star Stephen Jackson holds Gianna Floyd (the daughter of George Floyd) on Tuesday during a news conference. AP Photo

Even as successive generations of athletes in America have been told to shut up about politics and focus on the sport, governments have not shied away from using athletes as pawns to further their agenda. This has ranged from the US boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to sending track and field star Wilma Rudolph to Africa in 1963 ― three years after she won three gold medals at the 1960 Rome Olympics ― to sell them the virtues of the American way of life.

On returning home, Rudolph became a vocal civil rights activist. Not surprisingly, she was forgotten by the public and media, and even now is usually remembered for her backstory of overcoming polio to win Olympic medals.

Being forgotten or ignored is not a risk most athletes of the present generation, with a cellphone in hand and a captive follower-count running into millions on social media, face.

LeBron’s 2014 ‘I can’t breathe’ won him praise from the then US President Barack Obama.

“You know, I think LeBron did the right thing,” Obama told PEOPLE. “We went through a long stretch there where (with) well-paid athletes the notion was: just be quiet and get your endorsements and don’t make waves.”

Those days, of athletes being quiet and not making waves, as the protests denouncing police brutality in the past week have shown, are over.

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