Athlete Activists: Risking Everything

In the article “Race in the Present Day: NBA Employees Sound Off on Race and Racism,” authors Agyemang and Singer counter the notion that American society is post-racial by interviewing employees of the NBA franchise, in order to get their perspectives on race and racism in American sport, as well as society as a whole, and how it affects athletes. From the perspective of those who were interviewed, issues of race and racism still very much exist in the NBA, such as the perpetuation of negative images of African American males and the double standard when it comes to holding African American athletes to a higher accountability for their transgressions than their White counterparts (Agyemang & Singer, 2013, 14–15).

Of particular concern, however, is that when athletes speak out against racial issues, they are often viewed in a negative light. Agyemang and Singer state that, although it was not a part of their study, participants that they interviewed felt that African American athletes shy away from speaking out for fear of being reprimanded, as well as the consequences they might suffer in their careers. Furthermore, they propose that athletes should be able to use their status as a platform for the betterment of society, and that when African American athletes that speak out against racism are muzzled, it impedes progress (Agyemang & Singer, 2013, 27). Despite the fear of reprimand and backlash however, some African American athletes have chosen to take the risk, and when they have, the effect it has had on our culture has been profound. Additionally, one might even argue that the consequences these outspoken athletes have had to endure could have contributed to the attention their activism received.

Colin Kaepernick, described by The New York Times as “the most polarizing figure in American sports” (Branch, 2017), took that risk when he decided to kneel during the national anthem at the 49ers’ final 2016 preseason game in peaceful protest of racial inequality, the oppression of Black people and People of Color, and police brutality in the United States. While we can be sure that everyone in the United States did not personally witness Kaepernick’s actions that day, his choice to protest, as well as the praise and condemnation that followed, instantly became headline news. Even those who do not watch football quickly became aware of Kaepernick and, whether in agreeance or not, what it was that he had done to receive so much attention. For choosing to kneel for the national anthem in protest, Kaepernick received praise from President Barack Obama, and even some fellow teammates. However, he was also highly criticized by many in the media, by angry fans who felt Kaepernick should keep his opinions to
himself and stick to playing football, and particularly by Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, who publicly stated his disagreement with Kaepernick’s actions (Mather, 2019).

Photo: Pixabay

The split opinion of Kaepernick has continued since. He has inspired many sports fans, and even some of his teammates, as well as athletes that play other sports and on other teams, and they began to join him in protest by also kneeling during the national anthem played before events. Still, Kaepernick found himself ousted by the NFL when he went on to seek a new contract. He has been repeatedly lambasted by President Donald Trump who has suggested players who refuse to stand should not even be given the option to stay in the locker room during the national anthem, but should instead be fired, and even remarked that maybe they “shouldn’t be in the country.” Conversely, Kaepernick went on to be the face of Nike’s “Dream Crazy” campaign, featuring his now famous quote, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” The campaign also produced an Emmy-winning commercial (Mather, 2019).

Now in 2020, in the aftermath of a series of violent murders of Black people by police, including George Floyd, resulting in the recent wave of civil unrest and uprising and a surge in the Black Lives Matter movement, many who previously criticized Kaepernick are rethinking their position. Most remarkably, Goodell, who recently apologized for not listening to players in regard to racial injustice and racially motivated police violence in the United States, and encouraged all to speak out and peacefully protest (Belson, 2020). Depending on who you ask, Kaepernick is either a traitor or a hero. Although it seems that he has now received recognition, support, and even an indirect apology for the brave stance that he took, there is no doubt that Kaepernick made a choice that he knew would have serious consequences. Kaepernick is still criticized today, however, the ripple effect of his silent and seemingly small gesture has made a huge impact and has changed our culture forever, just as other African American athletes have done before him.

In 1967, Muhammad Ali, known to be one of the greatest athletes in our country’s history, tapped into many Americans’ oppositional stance to the war in Vietnam when he compared it to the racial injustices happening in the United States. Refusing to be drafted to fight in the war, he declared, “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?” Ali expressed that he had no regrets, even though he was fined and convicted for his conscientious objection to the draft.

A few years later in 1971, the majority of Americans saw the war in Vietnam for the tragedy that it was, the country had begun to confront racial injustice in light of the recent civil rights movement, and Ali’s conviction was overturned. Like Keapernick, he too was seen by some as a villain and by others, a hero. Ali said he was only listening to his consciousness; he was not trying to be a leader, he just wanted to be free (Zirin, 2011). Regardless, he created a legacy for himself, not only as a great American boxer, but also as a great civil rights activist.

Each year, Sports Illustrated Magazine and the family of Muhammed Ali honor a figure who they feel “embodies the ideals of sportsmanship, leadership and philanthropy and has used sports as a platform for changing the world.” In 2017, Colin Kaepernick was the recipient of the Muhammed Ali Legacy Award for “his steadfastness in the fight for social justice, for his
adherence to his beliefs no matter the cost” (Rosenberg, 2017). Despite the efforts of team owners, organizers, sponsors, media, disgruntled fans, and even a president of the United States to silence African American athletes from speaking out in regard to social issues, no matter how peaceful their attempt, it is clear that when they do take advantage of their status in popular culture, the statements they make, and even the consequences they suffer for doing so, can have a powerful and positive impact on how we as a society view and continue to attempt to dismantle racial inequality and oppression.



Agyemang, K. J. A., & Singer, J. N. (2013, March 12). Race in the Present Day: NBA Employees Sound Off on Race and Racism. Journal of African American Studies, 18, 11–32.

Belson, K. (2020, June 5). As Trump Rekindles N.F.L. Fight, Goodell Sides With Players. The New York Times.

Branch, J. (2017, September 7). The Awakening of Colin Kaepernick. The New York Times.

Mather, V. (2019, February 15). A Timeline of Colin Kaepernick vs. the N.F.L. The New York Times.

Rosenberg, M. (2017, November 30). Colin Kaepernick Is Recipient of 2017 Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award. Sports Illustrated.

Zirin, D. (2011, June 20). This Day in History June 20, 1967: Muhammad Ali Convicted for Refusing the Vietnam Draft. Zinn Education Project.

art historian. writer.

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