Protest & Sports: Athletes Who Have Used Their Platforms to Make a Difference Off the Field
When former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality, detractors claimed athletes had no place in politics. But from Tommie Smith and John Carlos to Derrick Rose, athletes have always used their platforms and voices to bring visibility to causes and issues that exist beyond the boundaries of a field, court or ring.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, athletes — and entire sports teams and leagues — have shown solidarity with protesters and spoken out against police brutality, systemic racism and white supremacy that exist in the United States. Learn more about the athletes who enacted change in the past — as well as those who are speaking up today.
Tommie Smith & John Carlos Protest Racial Inequality at the 1968 Summer Olympics
Black athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised black-gloved fists during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Smith and Carlos earned gold and bronze medals respectively during the 200-meter running event. When "The Star-Spangled Banner" played, they faced the American flag and kept their hands raised.
Colin Kaepernick Kneels to Protest Police Brutality & Racial Inequality
In 2016, Colin Kaepernick, the then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback, refused to stand for the national anthem. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way," the civil rights advocate told NFL Media.
The WNBA Stands in Solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement
According to The Washington Post, the WNBA rescinded its announcement that it would fine teams and players for participating in Black Lives Matter protests in less than 24 hours. Why did the fines come about? The Indiana Fever, New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury players wore black T-shirts during warmups in solidarity with Black Lives Matter — and were subsequently fined $5,000 per team and $500 per player.
Liverpool Footballers and Other Players Protest Police Brutality in the Wake of George Floyd’s Murder
Taking a cue from Colin Kaepernick’s protest, Liverpool players knelt down at Anfield on Monday in a tribute to George Floyd, who was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin the week before.
Brittney Griner & Layshia Clarendon Advocate for the Rights of Transgender Folks
In 2017, WNBA players Brittney Griner and Layshia Clarendon published an op-ed that opposed Texas Senate Bill 3 (SB3), which aimed to regulate bathroom access based upon one’s "biological sex" and block local anti-discrimination bills that protect trans folks’ rights to use the bathroom that matches their gender.
Derrick Rose Protests Police Brutality by Wearing a Shirt with Eric Garner’s Last Words
In December of 2014, NBA star Derrick Rose wore a black T-shirt with the words "I Can’t Breathe" printed on the front during a team warmup with the Chicago Bulls. The phrase referenced the last words of Eric Garner, a Black man who was murdered by Staten Island police officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014.
The “Syracuse 8” Protest Racial Inequality in Sports, Education & Healthcare
The student athletes who boycotted the 1970 football season at Syracuse University were inaccurately dubbed the "Syracuse 8" when, in fact, nine athletes participated in the protest. The Black players met in secret to discuss how they could achieve racial equality on and off the field.
Sean Doolittle Advocates for the LGBTQ Community
MLB pitcher Sean Doolittle and his wife Eireann Dolan purchased hundreds of tickets to the Oakland Athletics Pride Night in 2015 and donated them to local LGBTQ groups so that the seats would be filled.
Carlos Delgado Stayed in the Dugout to Protest the U.S. Invasion of Iraq
Following the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2004, first baseman Carlos Delgado undertook his own quiet protest against the war. That season, Toronto faced off against the New York Yankees a whopping 19 times — and the Yankees, unlike other teams, insisted on playing "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch of every home game.
St. Louis Rams Players Protest Police Brutality & Stand in Solidarity with Michael Brown & Ferguson Black Lives Matter Protests
After 18-year-old Ferguson, Missouri, resident Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in August of 2014, months of protests ensued. And in November, just five days after a grand jury decided against indicting police officer Darren Wilson, five members of the St. Louis Rams showed their support for Brown and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Seattle Storm Organize a Rally for Planned Parenthood
Co-owned by three women — Lisa Brummel, Ginny Gilder and Dawn Trudeau — the Seattle Storm WNBA team came together to host a pre-game rally on July 18, 2017, to benefit Planned Parenthood. Some players missed out on warmups to attend the rally, and spectators were given "I Stand with Planned Parenthood" signs.
Eric Reid Kneels to Protest Police Brutality & Racial Inequality
Following in his former teammate Colin Kaepernick’s footsteps, the Carolina Panthers’ safety Eric Reid kneels every week during the national anthem to protest ongoing racial inequality, social injustice and police brutality in the U.S.
Venus Williams & Serena Williams Fight for Equal Pay
In 2005, Venus Williams appealed to the Grand Slam governing board and then wrote an op-ed, fighting for equal monetary awards for men and women at Wimbledon and the French Open. Shortly after, Venus won at Wimbledon — and netted the same prize as the men’s champ.
Enes Kanter Speaks Out Against Authoritarian Regime in Turkey
Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter was born in Switzerland and raised in Turkey. But despite his family’s Turkish roots, Turkey’s government revoked his passport in 2017 and accused Kanter and his relatives of terrorism. That said, Kanter hasn’t visited the country in years — and his games are censored on Turkish television.
LeBron James Protests Police Brutality & Racial Inequality — & Advocates for Education
Unlike the NFL, the NBA has a written rule about standing for the national anthem — and the league made sure to remind players of this stipulation. But three-time NBA champ LeBron James said he "will not shut up and dribble."
Reggie Bullock Becomes an Advocate for Transgender Folks & the LGBTQ Community
In 2019, Vice Sports debuted a documentary about NBA star Reggie Bullock and his journey to becoming an LGBTQ activist in the wake of his sister’s murder in 2014. Bullock’s sister, Mia Henderson, was a transgender woman living in Baltimore and, one night, she was stabbed to death.
U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Fights for Equal Pay
In 2016, several high-profile members of the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) filed a complaint against U.S. Soccer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Among those members? Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Becky Sauerbrunn and Megan Rapinoe.
Muhammad Ali Protests the Vietnam War by Refusing the Draft
Muhammad Ali won a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics. A year later he turned pro and converted to Islam, which led him to take the name we know him by today. A few years later in 1966, "The Greatest" refused to be drafted into the military because he opposed the Vietnam War.
Jesse Owens Stands Up to Nazi Germany — & Wins Big
The New York Times dubbed Jesse Owens "perhaps the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history." At the 1936 Summer Olympics, which were held in Nazi Germany, Owens achieved international fame by winning an impressive four gold medals.
Megan Rapinoe Kneels to Protest Police Brutality & Racial Inequality
The first professional athlete to kneel in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick was soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who knelt during the anthem prior to a Seattle Reign match. She wrote in The Players’ Tribune, "I am kneeling because I have to do something. Anything. We all do."
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf Holds True to Religious Beliefs, Refuses to Stand for Anthem
Denver Nuggets player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf converted to Islam in 1991 and, during a 1996 game, he refused to stand during the national anthem. He stated that the U.S. flag was a "symbol of oppression [and] of tyranny."
The Black 14 Plan to Protest Racism in the Mormon Church
The University of Wyoming kicked 14 Black players off the football team in 1969. During a game against Brigham Young University — a Mormon-owned and -operated school — said players were planning to protest a Mormon policy that forbade Black members from the priesthood.
Indiana Fever Become the First Entire Team to Kneel to Protest Police Brutality & Racial Inequality
In September of 2016, the Indiana Fever WNBA team joined other athletes — inspired by Colin Kaepernick — to kneel during the national anthem to protest ongoing police brutality against Black folks in America. But this protest was unique.
Aly Raisman Speaks Out About Being a Survivor
Gymnast Aly Raisman won six Olympic medals and was captain of both the 2012 "Fierce Five" and 2016 "Final Five" U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics teams. Off the floor, Raisman has also set an example by speaking her truth.
Adam Rippon Becomes the First Openly Gay Athlete to Win for the U.S. at the Winter Games
In 2015, Adam Rippon publicly came out as gay and, three years later, he was one of three men selected to represent the U.S. in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Long before his events aired, a lot of pressure — and attention — were placed on the skater.
Albert Wolff, Milton Green, Norman Cahners, Halet Çambel & Suat Fetgeri Așani Among Athletes to Protest the 1936 Olympics
Although fencer Albert Wolff qualified for the French Olympic team, he chose to boycott the 1936 Summer Games due to his Jewish heritage. That year, the games were were being held in Nazi Germany. Wolff said, "I cannot participate in anything sponsored by Adolf Hitler, [not] even for France."
Caster Semenya Challenges IAAF’s New “Sex Verification Testing”
Caster Semenya, a South African middle-distance runner, is an Olympic gold medalist and has won several World Championship titles. However, her time as a world-class athlete has been plagued by invasive "sex verification testing" since 2009. In 2018, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) announced new "differences of sex development" rules.
Dutee Chand Challenges Hyperandrogenism Ruling & Comes Out Publicly
Despite winning two gold medals at the Asian Junior Athletics Championships in 2014, Chand was disqualified from the Commonwealth Games in a last-minute decision by the Athletic Federation of India. The Federation determined that Chand’s hyperandrogenism — her high levels of naturally occurring androgens — made her unable to compete in women’s sports.
Arthur Ashe Educates the Public About HIV & AIDS
Three-time Grand Slam winner Arthur Ashe became the first Black man to win singles titles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open. Off the court, Ashe used his platform to educate others about HIV and AIDS and founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS and the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health.
Jackie Robinson Breaks Down Racial Barriers On & Off the Field
Famously, Jackie Robinson became the first Black baseball player to play in the MLB when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Before then, professional baseball had been segregated, relegating Black players to the Negro leagues since the 1880s.
Bronson Koenig Stands in Solidarity with Protestors at Standing Rock
Currently, Bronson Koenig plays for the NBA G League team the Erie BayHawks — the New Orleans Pelicans affiliate. Although his platform may not be as far-reaching as those of NBA players, Koenig, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, is still aiming to make a far-reaching difference.
The Phoenix Suns & Los Angeles Clippers Take Part in Very Uniform Protests
When it comes to uniforms, some teams have added new meaning to the phrase "statement piece." In 2010, the Phoenix Suns wore uniforms that read "Los Suns" to protest Arizona’s new immigration law. Then-star Steve Nash said the bill "opens up the potential for racial profiling and racism."
Bruce Maxwell Becomes First MLB Player to Kneel
On September 23, 2017, Bruce Maxwell became the first MLB player to kneel during the national anthem. The former Oakland Athletics’ catcher made history protesting racial inequality and police brutality on the diamond — and the decision certainly had ramifications.
Pat Tillman Trades One Uniform for Another
In the aftermath of 9/11, the Arizona Cardinals’ Pat Tillman left the NFL to enlist in the U.S. Army in June of 2002. While serving with the Army Rangers, Tillman was killed in Afghanistan under nebulous circumstances. In the end, the Department of Defense admitted Tillman was killed by friendly fire.