Leading The Way: Professional athletes use their platform for civil rights activism

Muhammad Ali vs. Ernie Terrell, Houston Astrodome, Houston, TX., 1967. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

By Nicholas Poblete/Asst. Sports Director


Professional athletes throughout history have utilized their privileged platform to continue the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders, by advocating for racial equality and shedding light on racial injustices.

“I have a dream,” Martin Luther King Jr. said during his famous speech, “that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Professional athletes, such as Althea Gibson, the first African American woman to participate in the World Tennis Tour and win five Grand Slam titles, have been able to break down social barriers. Gibson was also the first African American to participate in the prestigious tennis tournament, Wimbledon, being crowned champion on two occasions.

Muhammad Ali, who passed away on June 3, 2016, was one of the greatest professional boxers. Known for his excellence in the ring, Ali was also known as an activist. In 1966 Ali refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War, because of this Ali’s boxing license was taken away between the years of 1967-1970.

During his exile from the boxing world, Ali voiced his disgust toward the war and racial injustices.

“When one man of popularity can let the world know the problem, he might lose a few dollars himself telling the truth, might lose his life,” said Ali in an on-air interview. “But he’s helping millions. But if I kept my mouth shut just because I can make millions, then this isn’t doing anything. I just love the freedom and the flesh and blood of my people more so than I do the money.”

Andrew Booth, a member of the men’s soccer team at FIU, believes that Ali was one of the great equality activists of his time.

“I know that he [Mohammad Ali] was proud to fight for social justice and that he thought it was just as important, if not more important than his career,” the redshirt sophomore said. “I think that it is really important because it would have been easy for him to hide behind his boxing fame and do nothing for social equality in America, but instead he used his fame as a platform to liberate others from social injustices.”

Carmelo Anthony, a professional basketball player for the Oklahoma City Thunder, took to Instagram on July 8, 2016, to condemn the social injustices occurring at the time.

“I’m all about rallying, protesting, fighting for OUR people. Look I’ll even lead the charge, by any means necessary. We have to be smart about what we are doing though. We need to steer our anger in the right direction,” Anthony said. “The system is broken. Point blank period. It has been this way forever. Martin Luther King marched. Malcolm X rebelled. Muhammad Ali literally fought for US. Our anger should be towards the system.”

Anthony’s Instagram post currently has nearly 80,000 likes.

One of the most controversial topics of late occurred on Aug. 26, 2016, when former National Football League quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, kneeled during the national anthem in a preseason match between the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers.

Kaepernick’s decision sent a shockwave throughout the NFL.

Since Kaepernick’s decision to stand up for justice, many of his colleagues have followed in his footsteps and have kneeled during the national anthem. The choice Kaepernick made in June has left the quarterback without a team, “blackballed” from the NFL.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” said Kaepernick in a press conference. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”

Jarreu Daniels, a senior midfielder for the FIU men’s soccer club, highlighted the sacrifice Kaepernick made.

“I believe Colin’s decision to kneel was a very important one for the history of America,” the midfielder said. “The positive effect it had is that it forced society to have a real conversation.”

Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James has praised Kaepernick, comparing him to Martin Luther King Jr. during a post game interview.

“I’ve commended Kap, and for him to sacrifice everything for the greater good for everyone, for what he truly believed in, the utmost respect to him,” said James. “Obviously he had a vision like Martin Luther King and like some of our all-time greats that people couldn’t see further than what they were doing at the point and time.”

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