When my father, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, I was 10 years old. Although I was heartbroken, I remember being moved to learn that members of the Pittsburgh Pirates, led by the great Roberto Clemente, refused to play in the days following the assassination out of respect for my father.
Although other teams did not follow the Pirates example, Clemente and his white teammate, Dave Wickersham issued a statement saying “We are doing this because we white and Black players respect what Dr. King has done for mankind.”
There is a great tradition of African American professional and amateur athletes standing up for social justice. Jackie Robinson broke the “color barrier” in 1947 and continued to speak out for civil rights throughout his career. Muhammad Ali cited his religious convictions and opposition to the Vietnam War when he resisted the military draft in 1966. Olympic track stars John Carlos and Tommy Smith were criticized by many for giving the ‘Black Power’ salute at the medal-awarding ceremony at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968.
When Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record 1n 1974, he endured racist threats, but refused to be intimidated and continued to champion racial justice. And when Forty-Niner QB Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem in 2016 in protest against police brutality towards Black Americans, he too was vilified and threatened.
Fast forward to 2020, and Kaepernick is now being widely hailed as a prophet among pro athletes for putting his career on the line and making tremendous personal sacrifices to lend his voice to protesting against increasing police brutality against African American citizens. His leadership, along with the brutal slayings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the horrific shooting of Jacob Blake and too many other police atrocities against citizens of color, has helped to inspire more athlete activism.
Today we are seeing wildcat strikes, game postponements, team knee-taking, moments of silence honoring victims and prayers for their families and even team marches in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement in professional and amateur sports, including football, basketball, major league baseball, pro soccer, tennis and Hockey, to name a few. In collaboration with the NAACP, Superstar Lebron James is making a critically-important contribution with More Than a Vote, a multi-million dollar campaign to a fight voter suppression and recruit young poll volunteers.
In addition, the Women’s National Basketball Association is playing a bold leadership role in protesting against police violence towards people of color. It is encouraging that these protests against police brutality and racial injustice are being supported in many cases by white teammates, coaches and fans.
Of course, some short-sighted fans and narrow-minded politicians argue that pro athletes should stay out of social change movements and stick to playing their respective sports, as if their sole function in life was to entertain the public. But these athletes are also caring human beings and thankfully, conscientious citizens, who know that young people look to them for hope and inspiration. They have chosen to use their influence in a positive way, to call for an end to racial violence and police brutality. I am grateful for their leadership.
Professional sports is one of our nation’s great institutions, not only because of the enjoyment it brings to our families and communities. It is also one of the few social arenas, where Americans of different races, religions and cultures come together to share fellowship and goodwill.
My father once said that “we have to be together before we can learn how to live together.” Young people of all races come together on the playgrounds, courts and ballfields of America. There they can learn how to understand and relate to each other, how to work together in pursuit of common goals and explore the power of interracial cooperation as well as the fun of athletic competition.
Professional sports builds community across racial lines every day, all across the nation, and the creative leadership of these athlete activists carries forward that noble tradition.
When professional athletes speak out about racial injustice, they get the attention of young people in a way that politicians can’t match. When they articulate a vision of community that offers respect and love for all people, it matters. And when they ground their call to community in collective action, they gain credibility.
I salute the integrity and courage of these athlete activists in standing up for America’s best values, which are now under unprecedented assault. Their continued commitment can help light the way forward to a new era of hope and healing for our country, when every citizen can feel safe and secure from racial violence. With our support, every stadium can become a ‘field of dreams,’ a place where brotherhood and sisterhood can one day prevail and help shape a better future for all Americans.
This guest column also ran on Variety sister site Sportico.