San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit during the US national anthem — he has since modified his defiance to kneeling — to protest police violence against black Americans has predictably set off a firestorm in the US. While the quarterback has received some high-profile backing, with President Barack Obama, his American football team and even military veterans voicing support, there has also been the inevitable backlash.
Much of the criticism has descended to the personal, with critics outraged that he is invoking oppression while making millions, questioning his “blackness” (Kaepernick is of mixed race but adopted by a white couple) and insinuating that he is protesting at the behest of his girlfriend, Nessa Diab, a Muslim.
It’s a narrative that the few athletes bold enough to have earlier trodden this path will be familiar with. Two decades before Kaepernick, there was the NBA’s Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. Born Chris Jackson, Abdul-Rauf, who converted to Islam, had in 1993 been named the NBA’s most improved player. But in 1996, fans and the media began realising that during the pre-game national anthem, he would either stay in the locker room or stretch on the sideline. Asked to explain, Abdul-Rauf, then with the Denver Nuggets, called the American flag a “symbol of oppression, of tyranny”. “I’m a Muslim first and a Muslim last,” The New York Times quotes him as having said. “My duty is to my creator, not to nationalistic ideology.” On March 10, 1996, he sat down in the middle of the anthem. A few hours later, the NBA suspended him indefinitely without pay. The suspension would last just a day — Abdul-Rauf and the league came to an agreement whereby he would stand but pray silently. But the act, just as Kaepernick’s has done now, sparked a massive debate in the US.
Labelled a traitor and continually booed at games. Abdul-Rauf ultimately, according to The New York Times, faded into obscurity.
It’s a similar tale with Craig Hodges, another NBA star who would learn the price of dissent the hard way. Hodges, a member of the 1992 championship-winning Chicago Bulls side, caused a stir that very year, when he turned up at the White House in a dashiki — a loose, brightly coloured tunic primarily worn in West Africa — and handed the first President Bush a letter, urging him to address injustices inflicted on the black community.
Next year, Hodges was dropped by Bulls and not signed by any other team. According to ESPN, he wasn’t even invited to camp for any of the remaining 26 teams either. “Barely 32 and still peppered with confetti from the championship parade, Hodges was not only out of the league as a player but was also unable to find any NBA job until Phil Jackson hired him as a shooting coach in 2005,” ESPN says of the time.
While Hodges insists his outspokenness was behind the collective snub, the NBA has always denied the charge. He lost a lawsuit against the league. “I went from making $600,000 a year to making nothing,” the ESPN quotes Hodges. “I went from helping a team win it all, to all of a sudden not being good enough to play for the worst team in the league.”
Financial loss, however, isn’t the only threat facing those willing to step out of the accepted sporting line. At this year’s Rio Olympics, Ethiopian Feyisa Lilesa crossed his wrists and held his arms over his head as he came in second in the marathon. The gesture, which the 26-year-old believes could get him arrested or killed, was in solidarity with the Oromo protests back home. “The Ethiopian government is killing my people so I stand with all the protests… as Oromo is my tribe,” Lilesa said. The Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, have been demanding equal economic opportunities, political reform and an end to police crackdown. Hundreds of them have been killed, according to human rights organisations. Though the government has assured not to take action, Lilesa is reportedly looking to move to the US or Kenya. And, as Quartz points out, despite the government assurance, there has been almost no mention of Lilesa’s silver-winning feat in the state media’s Olympics reports.
Lilesa’s open resistance at the Olympics is also not without precedent. Back in 1968, the Black Power fist salute — a gesture used by militant offshoots of the US civil rights movement — rocked the Summer Games in Mexico City and, in the process, produced one of the most enduring images of defiance. It captured Tommie Smith, who took gold in the 200 m, and teammate John Carlos, who took bronze, standing defiantly, head bowed, their black-gloved fists thrust into the air, as the US national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, played. It scandalised the Olympics and the duo were sent home, banned from the Olympics for life. They would end up living under the shadow of death threats before being rehabilitated and are now, rightly, hailed as heroes.
But an important story of that photograph would only see the light of day some four decades later: few knew Peter Norman even in his own country before the documentary Salute, directed by his nephew, laid bare his struggles in 2008. Even in those Games, the Australian would shock everyone by powering past Carlos and winning the silver medal, before playing his own role in sporting history, one that would only be acknowledged much after his death.
As the white man in that photograph, Norman appears to be indifferent — oblivious to the iconic protest. “He seemed to be just a simpering Englishman (who) represented, in his icy immobility, the will to resist the change that Smith and Carlos were invoking in their silent protest,” wrote the Italian writer Riccardo Gazzaniga in a profile, in 2015. But in the mother of all ironies, the white man would end up enduring some of the worst prosecution for standing up to discrimination.
Even the salute, it later turned out, had Norman’s imprint. Carlos had left his pair of black gloves at the Olympic village and it was Norman who suggested they wear one each of Smith’s pair. He also donned a ‘Olympic Project for Human Rights’ badge, one that athletes wore in support of equality, to show solidarity. The three then went out on the field, with the badges pinned above their respective emblems, and got up on the podium: the rest is history, preserved in that photograph.
Norman’s actions would have severe repercussions: Australia’s greatest ever sprinter (his 200 m record of 20.06, set in that race, is still the Australian record) would never set foot on an Olympic track ever again, despite going under the qualifying times for the 200 m 13 times for the 1972 Munich Games.
Back then,Gazzaniga tells us, Australia had strict apartheid laws that included heavy restriction on non-white immigration and discriminatory laws against Aboriginal people. And Norman’s actions were deemed more than unacceptable.
The ostracised Norman worked as a gym teacher for a while and occasionally in a butcher shop. “An injury caused him to contract gangrene which led to issues with depression and alcoholism,” Gazzaniga says.
Norman eventually died of a heart attack in 2006, and at his funeral, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Norman’s friends since that moment in 1968, were among the pallbearers.
Redemption would only come six years after his death, when the Australian Parliament formally apologised to the sprinter’s family in 2012, for “failing to send him to the 1972 Munich Olympics”.
And then there is the greatest of them all — Muhammad Ali. His refusal to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War came at great personal cost, robbing him, as his trainer Angelo Dundee notes, of the “the best years of his boxing life”.
Ali refused military induction despite being warned that he was committing an offence that was punishable by five years in prison. “It led to his arrest and eventual conviction, though he stayed out of prison while his case was appealed. His license to box was suspended in New York the same day, and his title stripped… Ali was unable to obtain a boxing license in the US for the next three years,” The Atlantic notes. Eventually, state boxing commissions did grant Ali licenses to fight.
That legacy is best summed up by John Carlos, of the Black Salute fame, in this interview to The Guardian, “There wasn’t a whole bunch of money out there back then. So just a few people were ever going to be shakers and bakers… That’s the difference between Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan… Of course, (Ali) was an excellent boxer, but he got up and spoke on the issues… There will be someone else at some time who can do what Jordan could do. And then his name will just be pushed down in the mud. But they’ll still be talking about Ali.”