In February 2018, Lebron James partook in an interview with CNN after launching his “I Promise” school in Akron. During the interview with Don Lemon, sitting president Donald Trump inevitably came up. Lebron shared how he disliked the way that the president leveraged sport to divide people. That same day, as he often does, Donald Trump tweeted. He belittled the intelligence of both the interviewer and the interviewee. After a few jabs were thrown between the two, the dust settled.
A few days later, Laura Ingraham of Fox News commented on both Lebron’s statement and his general outspokenness. She questioned why James couldn’t simply “Shut up and Dribble.” Much to the dismay of Ingraham, “Shut up and Dribble” became a rallying cry for athletes worldwide to show their support for Lebron and reject the notion that athletes only have the singular purpose of delivering a product on the court.
Seeing how positive the response was to the “Shut up and Dribble” movement, I felt that it would be beneficial to take a glance at how far we have come in the acceptance of athletes activism as well as modern day examples showing how much more we have to grow.
In 1996, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was having a career year. He logged his career-high 51 points, and was only two years removed from winning the NBA’s most improved player award. He had career highs in points, rebounds and assists, and he was one of the most efficient shooters in the history of the game. However, Abdul-Rauf’s 1995-1996 season isn’t remembered for his outstanding play on the court, but rather his protests before them.
Due to what he perceived as injustice and oppression, particularly the wave of police killings of unarmed black men, Abdul-Rauf elected to stay in the locker room during the anthem. As a result, he was suspended and fined $25,000. He was quickly traded to the Sacramento Kings for pennies on the dollar, despite leading the Nuggets in both scoring, and assists.
After being traded, the young star started receiving drastically less playing time and ultimately lost his starting spot. When his contract expired in 1998, he didn’t receive a single call for an offer or even a tryout. To this day, Abdul-Rauf and his fans believe that he was cast out of the league for his protest, and it isn’t too difficult to see why.
While the public opinion tended to side with him during the controversy, support ultimately fell to the wayside and his ousting from the league mainly fell on deaf ears.
And of course, since I am touching on modern day political activism in sports, the topic of Colin Kaepernick and the protests of various other players in the NFL must be recognized. For those who may be unaware, during the 2016-17 NFL season, Colin Kaepernick and a handful of players elected to kneel during the national anthem to protest the wave of police brutality that has been plaguing the nation, a move very similar to Abdul-Raufs’ motives in the 90s.
From the moment the protest began, it became the number one focus of nearly everyone in both the sports and political world. Politicians, TV personalities and celebrities across the world jumped in and shared their takes on his protest and what it meant to them. In fact, President Donald Trump called them “Sons of Bitches” and questioned whether or not they should even be allowed to stay in the country. Even Mike Pence exited a game after seeing players protest.
After feeling the pressure from corporate sponsors, politicians, and celebrities, the league enacted a new policy, and players now had two options. They could either stay in the locker room, or stand for the anthem. If they decided to do anything else, kneeling, or otherwise, they could be fined, suspended or cut. Malcolm Jenkins, one of the first players to begin kneeling with Kaepernick, called the move “an attempt to thwart the players constitutional rights to express themselves.”
After the season ended, and some of the controversy subsided, Kaepernick’s contract was up. Despite him being an enormous part of the super bowl run two years prior, the 49ers elected not to keep Kaepernick. That summer he went unsigned, and for the last three years, he has been unable to land a spot in the league.
115 quarterbacks have been signed since Kaepernick’s release in 2017, with a good percentage holding much worse yardage, interceptions and wining percentages. Kaepernick has since formed a collusion lawsuit against the league alleging that he was held out of the league purposefully.
The point of highlighting these examples is to show just how little the American public at large has grown in respect to athletes showcasing their thoughts.
It is truly eerie how similar the situations between Abdul-Rauf and Kaepernick are. Both were quickly cast out of their respective leagues for protests revolving around the national anthem, and both were chastised by politicians and the public at large. It is truly alarming how little has changed in the 20 years between the two protests. However, not all is lost. A large chunk of the public has rallied behind Kaepernick, and major brands such as Nike have taken a stand and supported him and his 1st amendment right to protest.
Regardless of how you perceive Kaepernick or Abdul-Rauf, I believe that it is essential that we allow athletes to share their opinions and prove to them and the children that they inspire that they mean more than just their performance between the lines.