Sports have long been an arena for political protests by athletes. Athletes are given a public platform due to their occupation, which requires them to perform on national television and in front of the thousands of spectators in attendance. Athletes with deeply seeded political views have taken advantage of these captive audiences to make their opinions known. Many have been forced to pay an unjust price for holding an opinion in countries where freedom of speech is not afforded to every citizen. Others have used this platform to express unpopular ideologies that have villainized them to groups of fans.
Political protests in the world of sport have been around almost as long as professional sports have. Sports are viewed by many as the ultimate meritocracy, where little else matters besides an athlete’s ability to excel on the field of play. This meritocracy has allowed athletes from all backgrounds to achieve success in their respective sports and is a microcosm of what can be achieved when everybody in a society is given a level playing field. Many of these protests have come against injustices against minority communities, who are unfairly denied access to many institutions that may be taken for granted by majority citizens.
Reactions from the public to these protests have been varied. Some of these protests have raised the profile of athletes on the fringe, while others have cast them firmly to the shadows of the history books. Regardless of the opinions express by these athletes, they had the courage of conviction to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the status quo. They have paid the price for their actions, but continued a long tradition of peaceful protest that has been present in sport for over 100 years.
10 St. Louis Rams “Hands Up”
This past weekend, the St. Louis Rams garnered national attention for a gesture meant to show support for the people protesting in nearby Ferguson. Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, Jared Cook, Chris Givens, and Kenny Britt walked out of the tunnel during pre-game introductions with their hands raised in the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture that protesters in Ferguson have been using to protest the shooting of Michael Brown. Brown’s case has captured national attention over the last few months after he was shot dead by policeman Darren Wilson, despite being unarmed. In a stunning display of heavy-handed ignorance, the St. Louis Police Department demanded that the team apologize, which was refused by the Rams. The league stood with the Rams by announcing there would be no punishment for the demonstration.
9 Miami Heat Don Hoodies
In the midst of the Trayvon Martin murder saga, the Miami Heat decided to express their solidarity with the Florida community torn apart by this tragedy. The Heat decided to take a team photo, where they were all wearing black hooded sweatshirts with the hood pulled up. The photo went viral when it was posted on Twitter along with the hashtag #WeAreTrayvonMartin. The photo came after careful consideration and discussion between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. The move sparked similar expressions of solidarity from a number of NBA stars including Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, and others.
8 Phoenix “Los Suns” Respond to Anti-Immigration Bill
When Arizona passed a controversial immigration law that allowed police officers to demand to see documentation regarding legal status, the Phoenix Suns decided to take a stand. On Cinco De Mayo, the Suns donned their “Los Suns” jerseys to express solidarity for the Latino community unfairly targeted by this law. Their protest took place during the Western Conference Semifinals, and the Suns rallied around the team decision to stand in solidarity with a 110-102 victory over the San Antonio Spurs.
7 Iranian National Soccer Team Wears Green Armbands
Iran took the field against South Korea for a World Cup Qualifying match in 2009, with more on their minds than producing a result. Six players including Ali Karimi, Mehdi Mahdavikia, Hossein Ka’abi, and Vahid Hashemian took the field wearing green armbands in support of defeated Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Most players obeyed orders to remove the armband during the halftime break, but captain Mahdavikia wore it for the entire match. Consequently, all of the players participating in the protests “retired” according to Iran state run media, but several have had appearances for the team since the demonstration.
6 Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf Refuses to Stand for National Anthem
After Chris Jackson underwent a religious conversion to Islam, he changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in 1993. Abdul-Rauf was one of the best free-throw shooters in the history of the league, boasting a career percentage of .905 for his career, falling just short of the number of attempts necessary to qualify for the all-time record. Abdul-Rauf sparked controversy for refusing to stand for the National Anthem because he viewed the American flag as a symbol of oppression. Abdul-Rauf was suspended by David Stern for a game. After the suspension, a compromise was reached regarding where he would stand during the anthem, but bow his head in prayer.
5 Paolo Di Canio Fascist Salute
Paolo Di Canio confirmed his status as a believer in fascism throughout his career as a footballer. Fascism is a widely held political belief in Italy and Di Canio expressed his support for the ideology by celebrating his goals with the fascist salute. He notably used the celebration against traditionally left wing clubs Roma and Livorno. Di Canio also sports tattoos honoring Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini and continues to do so during his tenure as manager of Premier League club Sunderland.
4 Irish Athletes Boycott London Olympics in 1908
Boycotting the Olympic Games has become a traditional political gesture by countries to protest the policies of host nations. It is a practice that dates back to 1908, when Irish athletes refused to attend the London Olympics because of Great Britain’s refusal to grant Ireland independence. Irish athletes taking part in the competition would have had to compete under the banner of the United Kingdom, which many refused. The boycott caused American athletes to refuse to dip the American flag to British royalty, a practice that has continued to modern Olympiads.
3 Pat Tillman Joins Army After 9/11
After Pat Tillman’s collegiate career that included a Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Award and a four-year stint as a safety in the NFL, Tillman did the unthinkable. He turned down a 3-year, $3.6 million offer from the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the United States Army. Tillman served in the Army Rangers with several tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. On April 22, 2004, Tillman was tragically killed in a friendly-fire incident. His death was initially reported as coming under enemy fire, and the friendly-fire incident was not revealed until a Department of Defense investigation had taken place. His number has since been retired by the Arizona Cardinals and the Arizona State Sun Devils.
2 Tommie Smith and John Carlos Raised Fists
Tommie Smith and John Carlos finished first and third respectively in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. As they took the medal podium with the Star Spangled Banner playing, Smith and Carlos raised their black gloved fists into the air in a black power salute to protest the treatment of black Americans in their country. Smith and Carlos were ostracized for the act of defiance and banned from the Olympic village and expelled from the Olympic Games. Their protest continues to be a symbol of black power and a source of inspiration for politically motivated athletes.
1 Muhammad Ali Refuses Enlistment
On April 28th, 1967, Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the United States Army and was immediately stripped of his Heavyweight title. Ali had recently converted to Islam and cited religious reasons for his refusal to be inducted into the Army. Ali famously said “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.” He was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison and banned from boxing for three years. He managed to avoid serving time in prison, but was unable to fight until his return to the ring in 1970 against Jerry Quarry. Ali’s gesture remains one of the most significant protests in American history, a shining example of a single man standing up to a country’s war machine.