50 photos of the sports world showing support for Black lives
If progress is born from many small moments in the margins cresting into a public sea change, the impact of Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem during the 2016 football season presaged and charted the course for the huge wave of athletic activism seen in 2020.
When Kaepernick protested police brutality and racism with a peaceful protest, he incited a harsh backlash and wasn’t signed back to the San Francisco 49ers after the season ended. Four years later, players are not only kneeling, but speaking out about systemic racism with calls for action to end police brutality and systemic racism, building on and adding to Kaepernick’s earlier activism.
Kaepernick wasn’t the first athlete to use his platform to peacefully protest racist violence—or the first to be punished for it. Muhammad Ali was perhaps the first Black athlete of the modern era to risk his career and white approval for standing up for what he believed in, refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War on religious and ethical grounds. He was subsequently banned from boxing, stripped of his titles, and lost his income. Ali set the groundwork in motion for future protest, showing athletes what could be gained—and potentially lost—with political activism.
Ali likely influenced two sprinters: The now-iconic photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos holding raised fists was taken while the national anthem played during the 1968 Olympic Games. They sought to bring attention to the plight Black Americans faced against structural racism in the U.S. To do this, they wore socks but no shoes to symbolize poverty of African Americans, and black gloves on their raised fists to symbolize unity. The third man in the photo, Australian Peter Norman, joined Smith and Carlos in wearing a human rights badge. They were expelled from the Games and faced harassment and ostracization when they returned home. Reflecting on the protest in Smithsonian Magazine, Carlos said, “We had to be seen because we couldn't be heard.”
In 1996, NBA’s Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem, calling the flag a “symbol of oppression, of tyranny.” He was suspended from playing until agreeing to stand for the anthem with his eyes closed.
These are only a few of the most notable examples of 20th-century athletes on the forefront of peaceful political protest. Kaepernick brought the legacy into the 21st century when he kneeled during the national anthem during his 2016 games, bringing national attention to inequality in America. “People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. That’s something that’s not happening,” he told media when it was noticed he wasn’t standing for the anthem. “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. So I’m in the position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.”
His protest resulted in being all but blacklisted from the NFL. But it also resulted in wider recognition of police brutality in America, and the backlash among white team owners and politicians—Donald Trump said his protest was “a terrible thing” and that “he should find a country that works better for him”—highlighted the reality of how angry and uncomfortable peaceful protest makes some people in America.
Other athletes followed Kaepernick’s example in 2016 and 2017. First teammate Eric Reid joined him. Then other football players across the NFL refused to stand, including Jeremy Lane of the Seattle Seahawks; Brandon Marshall of the Denver Broncos; and Arian Foster, Michael Thomas, Kenny Stills, and Jelani Jenkins of the Miami Dolphins. Marcus Peters of the Kansas Chiefs and Martellus Bennett and Devin McCourty of the New England Patriots held up fists. Soccer player and Olympic winner Megan Rapinoe kneeled during the national anthem in solidarity with Kaepernick. High school teams started to kneel, then university players and cheerleaders, and then even more NFL players kneeled or stood with raised fists during the anthem. The entire Indiana Fever women’s team kneeled, bringing Kaepernick’s protest to the WNBA. In 2017, Seth DeValve of the Cleveland Browns became the first white player to kneel during the anthem.
And so the activism and strikes that swept the sports world after the police shootings of George Floyd and Jacob Blake didn’t come out of nowhere. Along with massive demonstrations that took place across every state in the U.S. (and quite a few countries around the world), athletes, in particular Black athletes, drew on both recent and more distant history. And while it can be argued that owners and corporate sponsors are commodifying the movement—the NFL releasing statements against racism is, after all, the very same institution that blacklisted Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem—the widespread messaging that Black Lives Matter shows how players are pushing their institutions toward change, using their power and influence to force a reckoning at the national level.
Stacker attempted to capture the player activism, dissent, and messaging with 50 photos showing how the sports world, and some specific teams and athletes, have shown support for Black lives.
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German soccer players supports Black Lives Matter
Soccer player Serge Gnabry, a midfielder for Bayern Munich, wears an armlet reading Black Lives Matter in solidarity with protests across the U.S. as he warms up before a match on June 6, 2020. His team, FC Bayern Munich, all wore the armbands in solidarity with protestors in the U.S. reacting to the police killing of George Floyd.
Bubba Wallace calls on NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag
Bubba Wallace, the driver of the #43 McDonald's Chevrolet, wears a T-shirt reading "I Can't Breathe Black Lives Matter" under his fire suit during the national anthem prior to a NASCAR race. Wallace, who is the only Black driver in NASCAR’s top racing series, has vocally supported the Black Lives Matter movement and called on the NASCAR organization to ban Confederate flags at its events. Two days later, NASCAR did just that.
Baseball players boycott games after Jacob Blake is shot by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin
When the Milwaukee Bucks boycotted their game in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in nearby Kenosha, it set off a chain reaction in the sports world. Pictured here is the empty Oracle Park stadium, where home team San Francisco Giants were to play the Los Angeles Dodgers on Aug. 26, 2020. Instead, the teams postponed their game and issued a joint statement that read, “Throughout our country’s history, sport has been a powerful vehicle towards change. The Dodgers and Giants proudly join our players in the shared goal for a more equitable and just society.”
Soccer players kneel in solidarity in Denmark
Danish teams FC Nordsjalland and Fortuna Hjorring kneeled in solidarity with the Black Lives Matters protests on June 6, 2020, in Farum, Denmark. Pictured in the foreground is Brianne Reed, an American currently playing for FC Nordsjalland, who organized both teams to kneel after the death of George Floyd and subsequent nation-wide protests. “I explained that as a member of the Black community this was something that has been on my heart the past few weeks,” she wrote, noting that she felt it was important for the Danish teams to kneel because “racism is not just a problem in the U.S., but a global problem as well.”
Nicola Bennett brings Black Lives Matter to the golfing world
Nicola Bennett, a professional golfer, wears a hat in support of Black Lives Matter during The Rose Ladies Series on July 30, 2020, in Barnet, England. "You don’t see many people from BAME [Black Asian and Minority Ethnic] backgrounds out on the course, and I think there are a couple of reasons for that, both social and economic,” Bennett told Women & Golf. “I hope that I can be an example and role model for Black girls and female golfers and demonstrate to them that things are changing and progress is being made.”
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MLB players unite around Black Lives Matter
Baseball’s 2020 Opening Day witnessed professional baseball’s entrance into the kind of political player statements that had long been the norm in other professional sports. Current and former Black baseball players formed a nonprofit called the Players Alliance, and some teams kneeled for 60 seconds before the national anthem played. Pictured is the Black Lives Matter base during a game between the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox on July 24, 2020, at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago.
Philadelphia 76ers players kneel and protest
Philadelphia 76ers players kneel in honor of the Black Lives Matter movement during the national anthems prior to an NBA game against the Toronto Raptors on Aug. 12, 2020. While the NBA’s board of governors announced the creation of the NBA Foundation, pledging $300 million to "create greater economic empowerment in the Black community,” players have taken more direct action, like Sixers players joining protests and Mike Scott and Tobias Harris calling for the arrest of the police who shot and killed Breonna Taylor.
MLB sanctions time for teams to kneel
On Opening Day the coaches and players for the Washington Nationals and the New York Yankees held a long black cloth and kneeled for 60 seconds of silence. They stood for the national anthem. The MLB has been less engaged than other sports leagues in protesting police violence, though the Milwaukee Brewers followed the Bucks in August, refusing to play a scheduled game after the shooting of Kenosha, Wisconsin’s Jacob Blake by police. Pictured are members of the Washington Nationals kneeling and holding the black ribbon.
NBA players negotiate activism with COVID-19 bubble
A Black Lives Matter banner is seen in front of AdventHealth Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on Aug. 27, 2020. Players have pushed back against the “bubble,” the socially distant protocols allowing the season to play out in Florida, for the hampering effect it has on their activism.
Quarterback Tom Brady calls for an end to police immunity
Tom Brady signed a petition calling on Congress to end police immunity—one of 1,400 athletes, coaches, managers, and other staffers across the NFL, NBA, and MLB. Qualified immunity shields police officers from misconduct, making it nearly impossible to hold the police accountable for violence and unwarranted killing. Pictured is Tom Brady wearing a helmet with “End Racism” stamped on it before a game against the Carolina Panthers on Sept. 20, 2020.
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