We’ve all heard it. “Sports and politics don’t mix.” It’s a common refrain because for many, sports are the refuge from the political conflicts of the times. What they want, perhaps innocently, is to lose themselves for a few hours in a contest that does not carry the weight of the world’s troubles on its shoulders. LeBron James burying a dunk. Mike Trout sending the ball on a majestic 420-foot arc. Venus Williams firing a 125-mph serve. These almost superhuman acts have little to do with climate change, or gun control, or abortion, and they should stay that way, they say. These are feats of athletic and visual beauty, and the fervent wish of those who utter the lament, and its more recent cousin, “stick to sports,” is that they continue to exist in that vacuum.

Except, we don’t live in a vacuum.

To me, it is impossible to look at sports and not consider its history and the integral ways it shapes the present. It’s that link across the ages that first brought the “don’t mix” incongruity to my attention. I was once one of the throng who preferred my sports untainted from the noise of politics. That was a privilege I could afford. With the exception of wealth, I hit the American lottery. I am white, straight, male, and cis. It was easy for me, for far too long, to ignore the direct connections between sports and politics because the issues that intersect those worlds almost always affected those who were not dealt the fortunate hand I was given. You see, when they say, “Sports and politics don’t mix,” what they really mean is “sports and progressive politics.”

The advent of professionalism in sports, a reality that has been in place for a century and a half, elevated the games of youth to the importance of commerce. From that moment, politics have been a part of every match, game, bout, and race. Even the Olympics, thought of as the pinnacle of amateur sport, are awash in money, as well as all the implications of a series of literal feats of strength between nations.

The actors in these dramas, athletes, rarely come from privileged backgrounds, though those that do certainly have an advantage. A 2013 study by the National College Players Association showed that 86% of the colleges that are part of the Football Bowl Subdivision leave their “full ride” scholarship recipients in poverty. An earlier report published in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport also proved that a child from a low-income family had a 37% lower chance of making the NBA than a middle- or upper-class athlete. Despite the ever-growing disparity between the American haves and the have-nots, the idea of the American Dream persists and many cling to it. Yet, there are few industries that offer the kind of mobility (and riches) that people imagine when they envision the Dream. One that remains, for the lucky few, is sports.

Even in that, the numbers are small. The NCAA reports an estimated probability of only 9.8% of the baseball players from eligible schools being drafted. The amount who actually go on to play professionally is even smaller, and for most that involves the meager wages of the minor leagues. The numbers for men’s (1.2%) and women’s (.9%) basketball are even bleaker. When the rare elite do reach the pinnacle of their sport, they become admired examples of the Dream. That is, until they voice opinions.

Kaepernick was ranked 7th among quarterbacks in the NFL in 2013. Three seasons later he was out of football completely. (photo: Mike Morbeck)

The most obvious example of this to be in the public eye of late is, of course, Colin Kaepernick. Bi-racial and adopted by white parents, Kaepernick attended John H. Pitman, a predominantly Hispanic high school in Turlock, California. Located twenty minutes south of Modesto, Turlock is a decidedly middle-class town, where the median household income is just a hair shy of the national average. Kaepernick was raised in a home where race was a persistent conversation. His parents did not shy away from talking to their son about the differences between the color of their skin and his. His background, a lifetime of living in two worlds, made him a perfect candidate to begin a national conversation about police violence against People of Color.

The backlash to his peaceful protest, the methodology of which has obviously inspired half of the name of this website, was immediate. At first Kaepernick chose to sit during the National Anthem, but his protest evolved into taking a knee after speaking with Army Special Forces veteran Nate Boyer. Boyer convinced him that while he understood that the protest wasn’t really about the military, some would misconstrue Kaepernick’s intention because of the jingoistic connection to the flag that has been nurtured to extreme lengths in recent years. The advice didn’t help and there were many, spurred on by the inflammatory rhetoric of then-candidate-Donald Trump, who set fire to their jerseys and shoes.

Following the 2016 season, when his protest was at the height of its prominence in the news cycle, Kaepernick opted out of his contract knowing the 49ers were planning to cut him during summer camp. He had become a PR liability to San Francisco, and his flagging performance the previous few seasons gave them the excuse they needed to get rid of him. He hoped he would be able to catch on with another team. Kaepernick has not played a game of professional football since. He, along with fellow protester Eric Reid, filed a lawsuit against the NFL, claiming collusion by the owners to blacklist them. The parties settled out of court in March 2019 for somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million, though it was later revealed that much of that went to legal fees.

During his 1967 campaign to be exempted from the Vietnam War, newspapers used not-so-subtle attacks against Ali by continually referring to him as “Cassius Clay,” the birth name he had surrendered three years previously.

When legendary boxer Muhammad Ali died the same year that Kaepernick was enacting his protest, there was an appropriate level of public mourning. Ali had become a hero to many, a beloved and colorful figure whose rare appearances during his final years were always met with applause and adoration. His refusal to serve in the Vietnam War in 1967 on the grounds of conscientious objection, which led to his conviction by a Houston jury for violating the Universal Military Training and Service Act (a conviction that was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court), was extraordinarily controversial. When he died his protest was a forgiven memory to even those who attacked him at the time.

Jackie Robinson, whom Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as the “founder of the Civil Rights movement,” is considered by many to be interchangeable with Babe Ruth for the honorary title of “Most Profound Influence on the Game.” He is revered, his number 42 now talismanic and retired throughout the sport. The fact that he stated in his autobiography, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world,” is a hard truth that was shoved to the back of the collective consciousness until Kaepernick’s protest polished off the 45-year old quote and gave it new life.

Jackie Robinson was court-martialed in 1944 for refusing to move his seat on a military bus, eleven years before Rosa Parks’s own act of passive resistance ignited the Civil Rights movement.

I mention Ali and Robinson for two reasons. The first is to show that athletes have been using their influence in the political arena for a very long time, many decades before Robinson, in fact. I also mention them specifically to highlight the profound double standard we have in America when it comes to our activist athletes, particularly those who are People of Color. It is only after time has passed, when the greater majority of the citizenry has come to the light and seen the truth of the issues they brought to our attention, that the anger over their activism fades and the appreciation of their talents becomes the dominant memory. It’s also important to note that the greater public idolization of these figures occurred after they retired, when they were bent with age and the strain of using their voices to help the downtrodden. Not to put too fine a point on it, they were no longer seen as threats by the portion of the populace that, to this day, allows their racism to dictate an irrational fear of African-Americans.

These are the stories I am looking to tell here at Bent Knees and Raised Fists. I am sure some will ask if I, and the other talented writers who will be contributing to the site, are ever going to tell the stories of athletes whose political proclivities fall on the other side of the aisle. My answer is, maybe. Politics and humans are complicated animals, after all. It serves us to remember that Jackie Robinson voted for Richard Nixon because he believed Nixon’s stance on civil rights was more authentic than that of John F. Kennedy. I am interested in creating a dialogue that understands those complicated realities and can contribute to bridging the divide in this very fractured nation.

Most importantly, though, we will be looking at how history echoes through sports today and shapes the games we watch and love. In addition to tales of overwhelming adversity, there will also be stories of hope and inspiration, because sports are a powerful motivator for change. It is important for us to not diminish their impact to, “it’s just a game.” Sports, like theatre, literature, and art, may not be a necessity that keeps us alive, but it is one of the things that makes life worth living. History has shown us, time and again, that it also inspires us to do more, to try harder, and to become better. It has the power to bring us together in a single voice in ways that almost nothing else can. I look forward to sharing its stories.

For further reading on the topics discussed in this article, click here.