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2014: The Year of the Activist Athlete

Icons of prior athlete-driven social movements speak out on the new dawn of athlete activism and what it means for the future.
December 19, 2014, 3:00pm
Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports

Even while he admires a new social movement that gained inspiration from his work nearly 50 years ago, Dr. Harry Edwards, architect of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, believes he could have done more had he been active in the era of social media.

"I sit back sometimes and wonder what we would have been able to do in the 1960s if I had had the social media that these athletes have, as opposed to getting on a rotary phone and dialing up somebody in Texas or New York or someplace else, and talk to them and hoping they get back to me before the end of the week, as opposed to instantaneous real time exchanges of commentary," Edwards said.

Read More: 'Hands Up, Don't Shoot' Is Bigger than Ferguson and the Rams

Edwards was able to organize the protests leading up to the 1968 Olympics through sheer guile and determination, which resulted in the most enduring image of athlete activism in the 21st century: John Carlos and Tommie Smith's Black Power salute in Mexico City.

That Edwards was able to do what he did in a time when athletes of color rarely had a mainstream voice spoke to his commitment to the cause, but it also outlined the limitations of the movement itself. Athletes then still relied on the media to put out their message. A movement relied heavily on its leaders. Somebody had to organize, put in the work, literally call everyone to convince them to join the struggle. Movements required figureheads. And if those figureheads were removed, then whole movements were threatened.

But social media has changed the nature of social protest. It's helped bring down political regimes, it's empowered revolts, and it's given a voice to the underrepresented. Political movements can begin with one simple tweet sent from one unaffiliated individual on the spur of the moment that can then roil into a revolution.

Photo by Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports

Some will remember 2014 as the year when sport as an institution was threatened by its own irresponsibility. The brutality of the games themselves threatens the lifelong health of the participants. The behavior of some of the players and the subsequent failure by the leagues that employ them to properly monitor this behavior has helped strike away at the culture of idolatry. The sheer audacity of leagues, players, and agents fighting over the billions of dollars in revenue has made people continue to realize that major sport is nothing more than a cash grab.

Yet years from now, when we look back at 2014, hopefully we won't remember it as the year that sport crumbled. Instead, 2014 was the year that athletes—spurred by societal and institutional ills—took a cue from the actions of people such Edwards, Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens, Althea Gibson, Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Dave Meggyesy, and so many others, to begin their own movement that has turned into the greatest display of athlete activism in U.S. history.

This year brought the Donald Sterling protests, the St. Louis Rams Five's "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" gesture, Andrew Hawkins, the "I can't breathe" t-shirts, Ariyana Smith's 4 minute, 20 second moment of silence, and of course, hundreds of tweets, Instagram photos, and Facebook messages.

This was also the year that college athletes filed a lawsuit against the NCAA to challenge the archaic amateurism model, and the year that minor league baseball players and UFC fighters filed class action lawsuits demanding better pay and treatment.

We are living in times that rival even the greatest moments in social protest history. Athletes have never been more empowered. The era of the careerist athlete—the Michael Jordan era—concerned only with selling shoes is over. Now the biggest names in sport—Lebron James, Kobe Bryant—have joined the cry for racial equality and against police brutality. You can sell shoes and fight inequality at the same time.

"I never lost faith that this generation would take its place as well," Edwards said. "They wouldn't do it the way that we did it, but we didn't do it the way Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Jesse Owens did it. We did it within the context of the challenges of our generation. It was just a matter of time given the reality of race in America, and the reality of development at the intersection of sport and society in particular."

Every revolt needs a spark. The civil rights movement and the fight for equality inspired the 1950s and 1960s athlete protests.

"There was something very tangible to fight for," said Grand Valley State University history professor and sports historian Louis Moore. "There's no Birmingham for us."

Instead, shortly after legislation assured—at least on paper—that all citizens would be treated equally, and after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the social activism in sports, and in society in general, began to dissipate. Yet conditions did not significantly improve for people of color.

In the aftermath of the civil rights movement, the white population retreated to the suburbs and conditions worsened in many major American inner cities. Meggyesy—a former NFL player turned activist in the 1960s, whose pioneering book Out of Their League details the mistreatment of athletes—said many of the governmental post-civil rights legislations led to what essentially became inner city blight, which, years later, led to the militarization of the police.

Yet while conditions did not improve, there was nothing tangible for citizens or athletes to protest against. It was simply an underlying system of mistreatment.

"It has to get to a critical mass," said Meggyesy. "Something has to happen that galvanizes the movement."

Meanwhile, athletes of color, with the help of 24-hour sports networks, became celebrities. They endorsed products on national television. They became icons. Most importantly, they became rich. And nobody wanted to jeopardize that. The repercussions for speaking out on issues soon became apparent.

In 1992, Craig Hodges—inspired by the teachings of the Nation of Islam—famously wore a dashiki to the White House, where he presented a letter to President George Bush asking for improved conditions in black communities. He also challenged athletes—including teammate Michael Jordan—to take a public stand on social issues. The following year, Hodges was out of the league. To this day, Hodges believes he was blackballed because of his beliefs.

Similarly, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf—born Chris Jackson—was suspended by the NBA in 1996 for refusing to stand during the playing of the national anthem prior to games. Abdul-Rauf averaged 13.7 points per game during the 1996-97 season. By 1998, he was playing in Turkey.

These incidents helped discourage athlete activism for nearly 20 years.

Then came Trayvon Martin's death in 2012. Neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shot an unarmed Martin while he was walking back to his father's fiancee's house in Sanford, Florida. Martin was wearing a hoodie when he was shot. Martin's death spurred a series of protests, which also reached the sports world.

"Their money and status and so forth as athletes does not prevent them from being stopped by a cop and getting into a situation where they might be shot and killed," Edwards said. "There was that factor of identification."

Most notably, James organized a photo with his Miami Heat teammate that appeared on Instagram and Twitter. Every player was wearing a hoodie, just like Martin at the time of his death.

"The fact that it was so iconic, that image, that resonated a lot with these athletes that are so into branding and image," Moore said. "There is a coolness aspect to this. It's not that they don't believe what they're protesting. They clearly do. But there is something cool about that."

The movement finally had its iconic photo. It was the Smith and Carlos moment.

The subsequent deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, among many others, brought a greater focus for athletes on issues of race and equality.

All this has happened during the presidency of Barack Obama, who was supposed to be the transitional racial figure in American history. Instead, the modern athlete saw what people of color saw everywhere: that Obama's election mattered little in the grand scheme.

"The greatest impact of the Barack Obama presidency as far as the African American community is concerned has been the extent that qualifications, Ivy League credentials, even being elected to the presidency of the United States not once but twice has absolutely no impact in terms of one's standing, levels of respect generated," Edwards said.

The use of social media has helped spread the message. So now it was no longer necessary for a Bill Russell or a Jim Brown to be the voice of a generation. A regular player like Andrew Hawkins or a college student like Ariyana Smith can make a strong statement that resonates in society.

And that's why Edwards believes this movement isn't likely to end soon. And that's why this movement will end up making 2014 the most significant year in the history of American athlete activism. Everybody has a voice, and many have begun to use it.

"These types of efforts pick up a momentum of their own," Edwards said. "It's virtually impossible to put that genie back in the bottle."