Defense of protest

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Perhaps the most iconic Olympic picture ever taken is a photograph of United States runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the 1968 gold and bronze medalists in the 200 meter dash.

During the national anthem, Smith and Carlos raised their fists in a salute to human rights — or black power, depending on who you ask. Silver medalist Peter Norman did not perform the salute, but openly supported it. The move was organized by a group called the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated earlier that year, had endorsed.

The response was very negative. Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Olympics, and all three athletes’ careers suffered. However, the photograph of the moment stands as a testament to their courage.

Today, a number of professional athletes, most notably San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick, are echoing Smith and Carlos in response to recent instances of police brutality.

Kaepernick’s demonstration has not gone unnoticed. Dozens of NFL players, including the entire Seattle Seahawks team, have protested in various ways since the start of preseason.

But with sports constantly in the national spotlight, athletes’ statements reach much further than the professional athletic world.

Two University of Dallas men’s basketball players recently announced their intentions to imitate Kaepernick and kneel rather than stand for the national anthem preceding this season’s games.

These kinds of responses are why we remember Smith and Carlos, and also why Kaepernick’s protest is, in my opinion, the most useful off-field drama to come out of the NFL recently.

At UD, most of us are aware of the difficulties of our polarized two-party political system. Issues are consistently divided along party lines and are morally determined by these equations: conservative equals good, liberal equals bad.

The biggest problem here is the polarization and lack of communication that results. Everyone is so convinced that their party is on the right side that they refuse to seek common ground with others before engaging them in debate, which means that debate can never go anywhere at all.

But examine Kaepernick’s protest for a moment. During the national anthem in the first preseason game, he sat instead of standing. The reaction was intense on both sides of the political spectrum; Kaepernick jersey sales skyrocketed, as did Kaepernick jersey burnings. Most notably, members of United States Armed Forces wrote open letters to him, expressing their disappointment that he would publicly reject the United States.

Then, Kaepernick changed his protest strategy. Now he kneels during the national anthem, in order to make a statement while also showing respect. This is, in my mind, why these demonstrations can be identified as something new to our polarized political atmosphere.

The issues of racism and police brutality in America are, by nature, political. And yet the protests in question have been remarkably unpolarized.

In 1968, two African-American athletes raised their fists to salute human rights. But all three runners on the podium that day wore badges of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, including Peter Norman, a white Australian.

Likewise, in 2016, the entire Seattle Seahawks team stood and linked arms during the anthem to represent the unity of the protest, rather than its divisiveness. The Seahawks are a racially and politically diverse team; cornerback Richard Sherman has lambasted the Black Lives Matter movement in the recent past.

This is important because we are all participants in our political system, even when we disagree. As long as we debate about whether athletes should be allowed to protest, we can pretend that the social issues that drive the protests are not there. Until we start treating the issues as things to be discussed, we will not have progress.

The athletes who are protesting are not doing so in order to score points for the liberal agenda. They are protesting to make a stand for something they believe in, and even if I don’t agree with all their points, that is something that I can and will support.

If you don’t think so, maybe you should talk to them. They are people too, and they are on this campus.

 

Have any comments, questions or suggestions for our columnist? Please contact Joseph Roth at jroth@udallas.edu.

 

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