More than a game: How sports act as a platform for social change

  • by Maddy Federman
  • Wednesday December 7, 2016
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Social inequality is deeply rooted in American culture and in recent years has been on the rise. During the football season, this escalation caused Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, to demand a change. Using his platform as a professional athlete, he decided to kneel during the United States' national anthem.

Kaepernick's protest has undoubtedly been effective in bringing attention to the issues of racial injustice in the United States. However, that narrative is in danger of being lost by those questioning the means and motivation of his message.

"This stand wasn't for me," Kaepernick told the media on August 28 during the preseason. "This is because I'm seeing things happen to people that don't have a voice, people that don't have a platform to talk and have their voices heard, and effect change."

He added that kneeling brings forth issues including police brutality and oppression that makes most people in America uncomfortable to talk about. That discomfort led to critics changing the subject to things as inane as questioning Kaepernick's patriotism.

"I think it's a problem, anybody who disrespects this country and the flag," Mike Ditka, a Hall of Fame coach and ESPN pundit, told the Guardian on September 23. "If they don't like the country, if they don't like our flag, get the hell out. That's what I think."

He also added, "I have no respect for Colin Kaepernick. He probably has no respect for me, that's his choice. My choice is that I like this country, I respect our flag, and I don't see all the atrocities going on in this country that people say are going on."

That kind of backlash is completely irrational; Kaepernick has gone out of his way to say that his actions are meant to improve his country. Ditka's reaction reaffirms Kaepernick's statement that people don't want to talk about racial issues.

Fortunately, Kaepernick is not alone. Many other NFL players joined his movement, including Brandon Marshall, Eric Reid, and Arian Foster.

There are many other players who support Kaepernick's message but chose to demonstrate it differently. The Seattle Seahawks decided to link arms, while other players are holding their fists in the air while the anthem is played. Despite the different actions, they all support the underlying message of promoting social justice.

Kaepernick has also received support from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. "I truly respect our players wanting to speak out and change their community," Goodell said. "We don't live in a perfect society. We want them to use their voice."

Goodell also added that players are moving from protest to progress in communities. This is shown by Kaepernick's vow to donate $1 million to help communities bring awareness and conversation to racial discrimination. The San Francisco 49ers matched Kaepernick's donation in an effort to combat racial and economic inequality.

Athletes in other sports have also embraced this form of protest with the intention of bringing other issues to the forefront. "Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties," United States women's soccer team veteran Megan Rapinoe told American Soccer Now after kneeling during the anthem. Rather than diluting Kaepernick's initial message, Rapinoe's ongoing protest highlights the validity of it while expressing solidarity.

Kaepernick is allowing athletes to question why they stand for the anthem and if the country they are standing for supports issues that they believe are substantial. Prior to 2009, it was not standard practice for NFL players to be on the field during the national anthem. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy confirmed this by saying that "players are encouraged but not required to stand for the anthem."

Athletes bringing attention to causes important to them has been a recurring theme in sports history. From Tommie Smith and John Carlos' raised fists at the 1968 Summer Olympics to protest racial injustice in the United States to the entire roster of the WNBA's Indiana Fever kneeling and locking arms a few months ago, sports have been a popular platform to start conversations on social issues.

"I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs," the late Muhammad Ali said when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War. "So I'll go to jail, so what? We've been in jail for 400 years."

Ali's willingness to sacrifice his livelihood, and even his freedom, was not widely celebrated at the time. Over time, however, it became a defining part of his legacy and made him transcend the sport of boxing and become a social icon.

While this may not be Kaepernick's fate, at least he got people talking.


Maddy Federman is a student at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.