Political athletes can ‘puncture privilege’

They bring controversial issues to different audiences

U.S. pro athletes — both female and male — either individually or as an entire team, have recently been outspoken on the mistreatment of Black citizens in this country. The fatal shootings by police officers of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, which were followed by protests, and the ambush shooting of Dallas police officers sparked the Minnesota Lynx players and coaching staff in July to wear “Black Lives Matter” black warm-up shirts. Two other WNBA teams soon followed with similar protests.

Last month several WNBA and NFL players, as well as athletes in other sports, kneeled during the national anthem in support of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick not standing for the song before an August preseason game.

Dave Zirin
Dave Zirin (Photo by Onika Nicole Craven/MSR News)

“A new chapter of resistance is being written each and every day in front of our eyes,” declared Dave Zirin, a sports columnist for The Nation. Zirin and St. Paul native Royce White both spoke September 21 at St. Paul’s East Side Freedom Library on “Sports and Resistance in the Age of Black Lives Matter.”

“Particularly when Black athletes speak out, it has the power to puncture privilege,” continued Zirin, who pointed to the late Muhammad Ali’s refusal of military induction during the Vietnam War. In later years the late boxer was “Disney-fied,” especially by those who once hated him for his stance, the author said.

“He [Ali] took a stand, and that is what Kaepernick is doing,” said Zirin of the quarterback. He told the capacity-filled mixed audience that the criticism leveled against the quarterback is misguided. “The fact that we are viewing this through a military lens is so much where we are in 2016 and how central the military is in this country. It’s really disturbing.

“We are not a military dictatorship,” continued Zirin. “We don’t have to answer [to the military] for protest.” Rather, he classified as “political athletes” Kaepernick and other pro athletes kneeling as the national anthem plays.

“I think what Kaepernick is doing now is more threatening than what athletes were doing in ’68,” he noted. The columnist-author later explained to the MSR, “I think the number-one thing the political athlete means is [he or she] has the ability to reach people in spaces that politicians or even traditional grassroots activists cannot reach.”

While White also applauded Kaepernick’s efforts, he was otherwise critical of many of today’s pro athletes who don’t use their public platform to speak out on critical issues, including the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James. “LeBron James is well paid but hasn’t said anything too controversial,” said White. “To me, LeBron James should…hold a press conference every day of the year with a new issue to talk about.”

A former first-round draft pick, White soon left professional basketball after being drafted by Houston because team officials weren’t willing to work with him on mental wellness issues. “I got slapped on the hand because I was a young Black kid and my [mental health] activism was a bit too progressive for the conservative ownership,” he recalled.

“I appreciated the NBA for the value they thought I had and allowed me to sit in those rooms… Otherwise I wouldn’t have known that billionaires [team owners] don’t care about anybody, Black or White.”

When later asked if he had an Oz-like experience when he met with the Houston officials, White told the MSR. “I was shocked on just how confident they were in the ignorance. They weren’t even shaken. ‘We don’t give a damn, and we don’t have to.’”

Royce White
Royce White (Photo by Onika Nicole Craven/MSR News)

When pro players do speak out, “They do it in a safe way,” he pointed out. “People like LeBron James…want a showy form of protest. How about you don’t play? Get all the players together and say, ‘We are not going to play for majority rich Whites [who] owns a team for 25 years and is a known racist.”

There is “a disconnect” when athletes speak out on such issues as police brutality because they — or the media, or the public, and sometimes all three factions — don’t fully explain the issue they are protesting, explained White. “He [Kaepernick] chose to talk about the issue, but there are so many reasons why they shouldn’t stand for the national anthem.”

“I think Royce’s courage has a highly contagious effect on me,” Zirin afterwards said of White. He has interviewed the young man several times on his activism.


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.