Policy Point--Counterpoint: Do African American Athletes Have an Obligation to Fight Against Racial Injustice?

AuthorHall, Eric A.
PositionArticle 18

On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old unarmed African American youth, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood-watch coordinator who suspected Martin of being a criminal. Martin's death struck a chord with black America, which was all too familiar with racial profiling and violence. The news about Martin quickly made its way into the locker room of the Miami Heat, one of the NBA's top teams, led by Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James. The three superstars wanted to make a statement and decided to pose for a photograph. Posted to Twitter and Facebook, the image featured the entire team wearing hoodies, the same garment that Martin was wearing when killed. The players stood with their hands in their pockets, their heads lowered. The hashtag James attached to the photograph read "#WeWantJustice."

This was not the first time, nor would it be the last time, that black athletes engaged in social-justice activism. Following the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and others, all black males killed by police, black athletes responded en masse. They warmed up in t-shirts reading "I Can't Breathe," and "Black Lives Matter," emerged from the tunnel with their hands up ("Hands Up, Don't Shoot"), wrote editorials, gave interviews, and knelt during the U.S. National Anthem. All the while the public screamed for them to "shut up and play," to be grateful, to keep politics out of sports. The President of the United States even called them "sons of bitches."

This policy point-counterpoint, authored by history Ph.D. candidates BJ Marach and J. Marcos Reynolds, frames black-athletic activism as a longstanding historical debate reaching back to the late 1800s. Both argue for the efficacy of such activism and ground their analysis in the "Revolt of the Black Athlete" of the late 1960s. From here they diverge. Marach contends that black athletes are under no obligation to protest racial injustice, while Reynolds concludes that their platform and position within the black community requires that they act.

Point: African American Athletes are Not Obligated to Fight Against Racial Injustice

In recent years, sports has become a stage upon which African American athletes have protested police violence, including most recently San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the U.S. national anthem. Reactions have ranged from solidarity with Kaepernick and others to profanity-laced demands by U.S. President Donald Trump that any player who protests should be fired. These protests have raised questions about whether sports are the appropriate platform for calling attention to social injustices. Athletes should be permitted to protest racial injustice, but they are under no obligation to do so. Engaging in activism could, and often does, irrevocably damage their careers. Such protests are also many times ineffective in forcing real social change.

The most obvious example of how protesting racial injustice can negatively affect athletes' careers, as well as the efficacy of such protests, occurred in 1968 before and during the Olympic Games in Mexico City. Although the Civil Rights Movement in the United States had achieved several of its goals by this time, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, there was still rampant discrimination against African Americans in the United States and people of color around the world. A group of athletes, led by San Jose State sociology instructor Harry Edwards, formed an organization called the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) to organize a boycott of the Olympics by black athletes. The group had four demands. First, that South Africa and Rhodesia (both under white minority rule)...

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