St. Louis Rams players Kenny Britt, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, Jared Cook and Chris Givens, ought to be celebrated. Showing solidarity with the people who want to see justice done in the Mike Brown, Jr. murder was an act of courage.
These brothers are courageous because they had to know there would be backlash. And it’s important to note that there are at least 25 Black players on the Rams roster, but only five stood up. Those brothers are heroes.
Everyone knows there is extra pressure on athletes to be apolitical. And there is serious pressure applied to Black athletes to not identify with the masses of Black folks. Of course the irony of this is that the vast majority of Black athletes come from Black neighborhoods; they know the Black experience. They know what it means to be Black in this country. So in essence those that stick their head in the ground and pretend they don’t know what is going on are simply being cowards.
The courageous Rams are part of a tradition. Before the super-sellout Madison Avenue flunky Michael Jordan arrived on the scene, it wasn’t that unusual to have a Black athlete nod in support of a social issue, or give a shout-out to a cause. Michael Jordan came along and changed all that. When challenged about how Nikes were being made in sweatshops, he pretended not to know. When a progressive-minded Black Democrat who was running for office in North Carolina asked Jordan to support his campaign, Jordan said, “Republicans buy [Nikes] shoes too.” When in the late 1980s the North Carolina football team threatened to go on strike because of racial bias, they asked Jordan if he would support them. Jordan refused.
But solidarity by Black athletes with the Civil Rights, human rights and anti-war movements was common in the 1960s and 1970s. The most well-known of those who stood up are Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe and Jackie Robinson just to name the most memorable.
The last time somebody stood up like that was when Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the draft in 1967. He said at the time that, “no Vietcong ever called me a ni**er.” This is what he said after he refused to be inducted.
“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? No, I am not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of White slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end… The real enemy of my people is right here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality…”
His refusal to be drafted gave Black people, who resented being drafted to fight a war for a country that couldn’t guarantee them their constitutional rights here in the U.S., a sense of dignity. Through him they said “Take that, U.S. government.” While everyone knows Ali’s name, no one can remember the name of any of the folks that jailed him or the writers that criticized him. His stand against the Vietnam War is as much the reason he is loved around the world as his boxing prowess.
I remember being proud when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their Black-gloved hands in a Black power salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico. The country tried to make them pay for what they did by refusing to hire them and harassing them for quite some time. But no one — even all the might of the U.S. government — could take their dignity, and they have outshone their detractors and have led full and accomplished lives.
By the way, Black folks’ favorite sports commentator Brent Musburger called them Nazis. That’s right, the White guy who has come into our homes and acted like he loves and respect the primarily colored athletes he covers and have made him rich said, “Smith and Carlos looked like a couple of Black-skinned storm troopers.” The actual article he wrote for the Chicago Tribune is even uglier.
The undercover racist Musburger never apologized, and according to Smith and Carlos, whenever they are at the same events the cowardly Musburger runs away. In fact, John Carlos is proud of the Rams as well. Here is what he said in an interview with Dave Zirin of the Nation magazine:
“How about those Rams? They may be under contract to play football, but greater than that, they have a right to care about humanity. They have the right to feel whether something is just or unjust. They are entitled to their opinions, most centrally that Michael Brown’s life should not have been taken. Asking them to just ‘shut up and play’ is like asking a human being to be paint on the wall.”
Mel Reeves welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.