There's a long history of protest playing out in the sporting arena

18th January 2019

There’s no ignoring the huge influence sport has over so many different aspects of society. It has an almost unrivalled ability to motivate and inspire entire generations, and those who reach its upper echelons are rewarded with near limitless exposure, attention and wealth.

With hundreds of millions tuning in every year, the Super Bowl is one of the biggest sporting platforms in the world. Its half-time show is the perfect opportunity for music artists to showcase their skills to an audience bigger than they’re likely to ever encounter elsewhere.

Despite the enormous benefits the show can bring, a number of artists have ruled themselves out of performing at this year’s Super Bowl.

Before it was announced that Maroon 5 and Travis Scott would perform, Rihanna, Cardi B, Beyoncé and Jay Z were just some of the superstars that had already declined an invitation to this year’s half-time show. Their decision not to play comes as the latest in a series of high profile NFL protests against the oppression faced by black people in America, which started with quarterback Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the national anthem in 2016.

These protests, and others before them, show how sporting stars can use their fame and the platform that comes with it to shine light on injustices and stand against oppression.

“Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”

On 26 August, 2016, the star quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, decided not to stand for the playing of his national anthem before a pre-season NFL game against the Green Bay Packers. After a series of incidents where minorities had been shot and killed by white police officers across America, Kaepernick rejected to stand as a way of protesting that persecution, not the anthem itself.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,”

“To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Kaepernick told NFL Media.

The protest sent shockwaves through the NFL and by the end of the season over 200 players had raised fists, knelt and linked arms by means of protest. Of course, President Trump had his say and suggested any players that didn’t respect the national anthem should be fired. The NFL suffered a huge drop in ratings, music artists have declined to play in their half-time show and ultimately, the NFL’s reputation has been tainted for their reaction to these protests. Kaepernick played his final NFL game in March 2017 and has since filed a grievance against the NFL for allegedly conspiring to not allow any team to sign the once highly sought-after quarterback.

Kaep has also received an abundance of praise and support, and the former NFL star was named 2017 “Citizen of the Year” by GQ Magazine and was later announced as runner-up for Time’s “Person of the Year”. He also featured in a Nike ad campaign with the slogan “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

In some ways the NFL is America’s biggest exploit and to many people around the world it is a representation of the rest of the country. If the sport’s biggest stars are seen to be protesting, it generates the idea that the U.S. may be slightly shitter than they would like to appear.

“Shoot them for what? They never called me n*gger”

Muhammed Ali’s refusal to be drafted to the Vietnam War is one of the most important and influential protests by any sporting personality in history.

Born Cassius Clay in 1942, Ali was always bound for greatness. He won the Olympic gold medal in light-heavyweight boxing in Rome in 1960, turned pro and won his first two professional fights within a few months. Just four years later he shocked the world by beating Sonny Liston for his first world heavyweight championship. He also made headlines for converting to Islam and changing what he called his ‘slave name’ from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali.

Muhammad Ali vs. Ernie Terrell at Houston Astrodome 1967 📸 Cliff

Three years on from winning his first world title, Ali was already becoming one of the best boxers the world had ever seen. Despite the flourishing career, Ali risked it all when he refused to be drafted into the war with Vietnam. He simply didn’t want to go to war with another country to hurt and kill people who had never hurt him.

He said: “I will not go 10,000 miles from here to help murder and kill another poor people simply to continue the domination of white slave masters over the darker people of the earth.”

Muhammad Ali with Malcolm X in 1964, after his defeat of Sonny Liston 📸 EPHouston

As universally praised as Ali is now, a figurehead for protests against oppression, violence, white supremacy and racism, the U.S. government at the time did not see it the same way.

Ali was stripped of his championship, his boxing license and banned from boxing for three years. He was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000. Fortunately, he never served his five years and his conviction was later overturned. He went on to win 56 of his 61 professional fights, winning the world heavyweight championship a record three times and became the greatest boxer to ever live. For this, and his decision to stand up against war, he is considered an inspiration to millions.

“You can’t be for God and for oppression”

On July 30, 2001, the unoccupied home of former NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was burned and destroyed because of what he believed in.

Abdul-Rauf revealed that the letters “KKK” had been spray-painted on a sign near the home. Fortunately, the former Denver Nuggets guard had purchased the house but not yet moved in.

Abdul-Rauf had played his final NBA game for the Vancouver Grizzlies that season at the age of just 32. What started as a highly-promising career had suddenly nosedived when he refused to stand for the national anthem a few years earlier, in the 1995-96 season.

Whether I go broke, whether they take my life, whatever it is, I stood on principles

After serving a suspension he was later allowed to bow his head and pray during “Star Spangled Banner” because his beliefs conflicted with what he believed the national anthem and the American flag represented. In doing so, Abdul-Rauf paved the way for Kaepernick and others to use sport in the US as a platform to stand against prejudice.

Despite his career not reaching the heights it should have and despite losing millions on lost contracts that could have been, Abdul-Rauf doesn’t regret what he did.

He told The Undefeated: “Whether I go broke, whether they take my life, whatever it is, I stood on principles. To me, that is worth more than wealth and fame.”

“One team in Tallinn, There’s only one team in Tallinn”

On a lighter note, in 1996, a World Cup qualifying match between Estonia and Scotland was abandoned after three seconds when the Estonian team failed to show up for the game.

Anyone who follows Scottish football will know the Estonian team didn’t show up because they feared losing. No one is ever scared of losing a football match to Scotland.

Scotland’s team trained at Estonia’s home ground, the Kadrioru Stadium, the night before the game but protested to FIFA that the ground’s floodlighting was inadequate.

The following morning FIFA changed the previous kick-off time from 18:45 to 15:00 to account for the lighting situation. The Estonian Football Association were unhappy with the change as it would mean they lost money in television revenue. I’m not sure how much money would be involved in Estonia versus Scotland, but it must have been enough to rile the home team up enough to counter-protest Scotland’s protest.

That afternoon the Estonian team arrived to prepare for the original kick-off time of 18:45. However, just a few hours earlier the referee had led the Scottish team out to the field, kicked the game off and abandoned it three seconds later. The game was eventually re-scheduled for February and was an actual football match played with two teams of eleven players each.

The game ended 0-0. Of course, it did. After three months of hassle and two protests, the game so many had been waiting to watch ended with zero goals. Scottish football.

Chile vs Soviet Union vs FIFA

After a more light-hearted story about the funny old game of football, it’s time we returned to serious issues of torture, murder and FIFA’s lack of compassion for thousands of deceased Chilean citizens.

Two months before Chile were set to host the Soviet Union in a 1974 World Cup playoff game in their capital of Santiago, there had been a coup d’état.

Armed forces and national police overthrew the Chillean President, Salvador Allande and thrust the US-backed dictator, Augusto Pinochet, into power.

The new regime in Chile deemed thousands of people ‘undesirable’ and they were taken to their national stadium, Estadio Nacional, to be tortured and killed just two weeks before the game.

The Soviet Union, understandably, asked FIFA to find a different venue for the game as they didn’t feel comfortable playing in a stadium that resembled a human slaughterhouse just two weeks prior. But FIFA failed to find a new venue and could not find a solution with the Soviet Union, so as a result they declined to take the field in protest.

Chile scored the only goal of a 1-0 victory when they kicked the ball into an empty goal — seems legit — and were awarded a place in the 1974 World Cup.

18th January 2019