Thanks to Colin Kaepernick sporting leagues across America are choosing to “Take A Knee”, but it’s important to remember the role that sports has already played in the history of the civil rights movement.
Jesse Owens: 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics
America in the 1930’s had a deeply entrenched racial bias, but it wasn’t on US soil that Jesse Owens changed the way many people viewed African-Americans on the world stage.
After having proven himself as a veritable track and field athlete in what many call “the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport” Owens qualified to compete in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.
Though he initially resisted United States participation in the games on the grounds of minority discrimination, eventually the American Olympic Committee president convinced him to take part, calling boycotts “un-American”.
Owens won four gold medals over the course of the games. Though he rewarded his country with victory, his long lasting effect was proving the capabilities of a black athlete at a time of accepted segregation.
Muhammed Ali: Vietnam War Draft
When Muhammed Ali was first called to the Vietnam War draft he made his intentions to abdicate well known, stating that he was a follower of Islam in Black America, and would remain a conscientious objector.
A year after, when he did not step forward to be called to serve, he was informed that he was in fact committing a felony offense and faced five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Ali continued to stand his ground, and despite appealing his case to avoid the prison sentence, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world was stripped of his title and immediately barred from acquiring a boxing license for three years.
Ali continued to speak out against the war, citing the state of his fellow Black Americans as reason enough to refuse entry in a war he did not believe in.
"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…"
Super Bowl XXVII: MLK Day Controversy
The 27th Superbowl already had enough tension behind it, with the Buffalo Bills determined not to be the first team to lose the Super Bowl three times in a row. However, the real controversy came when an Arizona ballot failed to recognize the civil rights leader's holiday.
Ronald Reagan had signed a bill nearly a decade earlier creating the holiday, but former Arizona Governor Evan Mecham prevented the holiday from being officially observed.
In the years that followed, there was an attempt to reinstate the holiday while the NFL was deciding where to host Super Bowl XXVII. Tempe, AZ was awarded the privilege of hosting the game, on the grounds that the latest initiative passed.
While the majority of those polled approved, there were two competing initiatives to recognize the holiday; one to replace President's Day, another to give it a new day. Voters became confused and the ballot failed.
Keeping to their word, the NFL withdrew the host privileges, and Arizona wouldn't host a Super Bowl until 1996.