Athlete activism: Reviving a long defiant tradition

“We’ve seen this return of the politicised athlete … There’s been an explosion of politics over the last decade.”

Political statements have long been a part of sports in the United States: From the 1968 Olympics when two Black athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their fists in the Black power salute during the national anthem, to Muhammad Ali, and more recently, after decades of athletes being pressured to appear apolitical, Colin Kaepernick, a player in the National Football League (NFL), who began kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice.

Like Kaepernick, Michael Bennett, a former NFL player and Super Bowl winner with the Seattle Seahawks, chose to kneel during the national anthem. He says his decision to protest was a difficult one, but ultimately he felt that athletes have an opportunity “to use our platform to bring awareness to people who are experiencing a different life than we’re experiencing, and trying to build a sense of empathy”.

Bennett, like most athletes who take a stance, faced intense backlash, with many insisting that politics has no place in sports.

But that is not the whole story, argues Dave Zirin, author and sports editor for The Nation magazine. “When I hear people say sports and politics shouldn’t mix, I feel like what they really mean is that sports and a certain kind of politics shouldn’t mix. You know, the politics of a Michael Bennett, the politics of people who stand for social justice and human rights, that’s what they don’t want to see in sports,” Zirin says.

This week, in an UpFront special, Marc Lamont Hill speaks with Michael Bennett and Dave Zirin about the state of politics in sports today.