On the last night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Billy Porter reprised a song from the 1960s, “For What It’s Worth.” The song is better known by its iconic lyric, which seems to be as relevant at this moment as it was for the moment when it was recorded by Buffalo Springfield in 1967: “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. ... We better stop. Hey, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down.”
On August 26, 2016, before a game with the Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose not to stand for the national anthem to bring attention to police brutality and systemic oppression of Black Americans. Four years after he took a knee, we see how big the ripple is from the rock he threw into the American sports lake that day.
The ultimate goal of all professional athletes is to win a championship. The Milwaukee Bucks were favored to make the NBA finals at the start of the season, and nothing about that changed when the season restarted. In their first-round playoff against the Orlando Magic, they led the series 3 games to 1, with a chance to close out the series and move on. But they didn’t do that.
They chose to strike, not to play and to forfeit the game to protest the latest police shooting of an unarmed Black man, the Kenosha Police shooting of Jacob Blake. The Orlando Magic, with their season on the line, refused to accept the forfeiture and refused to play in support of the Bucks. Then the rest of the NBA added their bodies to the strike and brought the NBA playoffs to a halt to protest police brutality against a brother they didn’t know.
And then, the dam broke.
The true social-justice warriors in American sports, the women of the WNBA, spoke and the WNBA canceled their schedule in support of the Bucks and the NBA. But that’s not where the story ends. Athletes in Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, and even the National Football League all joined the strike. Even the overwhelmingly white tennis world was brought to a halt when U.S. Open Champion Naomi Osaka refused to take the court in the semifinals of the Western & Southern Open.
Maybe the most emotionally powerful thing anyone has ever witnessed in any sport, at any time, was the New York Mets and Miami Marlins taking the field, doffing their caps for 42 seconds of silence in honor of Jackie Robinson, then saluting each other and walking off the field.
As remarkable as this moment is, it’s not ahistorical. In fact, it’s very much part of the history of the Black athlete in America. But if you were not born the last time Black professional athletes laid their careers and livelihoods on the line in defense and in support of the general welfare of Black people, then for the most part all you’ve ever seen Black athletes do besides compete is sell tennis shoes.
Before Kaep took a knee, Muhammad Ali refused to take an oath to be inducted into the United States military because his religion wouldn’t permit him to murder people of color fighting to liberate their country from racist colonial hegemony. Though he never would have had to go to Vietnam, Ali stood on principle and paid the price of his title at the prime of his career.
But Ali didn’t stand alone that day. Jim Brown and Bill Russell – arguably the two greatest, most successful athletes of their generation – stood with him, along with among others, including a young Lew Alcindor, who also became a leader of the boycott of the 1968 Mexico Olympics before he became Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
Speaking of the 1968 Olympics, there were two brothers who decided to participate so they could make a Black statement to the world about America. Tommie Smith and John Carlos went to Mexico and competed in the men’s 200 meters, finishing first and third, respectively. But during the medal ceremony, rather than wrap themselves in the American flag, in a pictured captured for the ages, they each raised a fisted glove in a Black Power salute.
There’s an important takeaway from this moment that shouldn’t be overlooked. Capital in any form has no inherent value until it has utility, and that utility can only happen when labor transforms it. To own a sports franchise means nothing without players. In fact, at the metaphysical level you can argue the NBA does not exist without the players. The entire sports world was in stasis because the players (labor) refused to come to work. At that point these billion-dollar franchises were worthless. Because of that reality, every billionaire owner of any professional sports franchise now knows that Black Lives Matter, whether they believe it or not.
Whether it’s the indomitable spirit of Jack Johnson, the courageous fierceness of Jackie Robinson, the audacious bravery of Muhammad Ali or the militant defiance of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Black athletes have consistently carried our colors into the arena. And now they got their swag back.