Political statements made by athletes, such as the one San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is making by sitting for the national anthem, are neither frequent nor unfamiliar.
Perhaps the most famous such statement was the one made by Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos after their 1-3 finish in the 200M race at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City.
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However, four years later at the Munich Olympics two other track athletes made their own political statement, in what is known as “The Forgotten Protest.”
Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett casually stood during the anthem.
Per The Associated Press:
Collett, bare-footed, leaped from the No. 2 tier to the No. 1 stand beside his teammate. They stood sideways to the flag, twirling their medals, with Matthews stroking his chin. Their shoulders slumped, neither stood erect nor looked at the flag. … As whistles and catcalls continued, Collett raised a clenched fist to the crowd before entering the portal of the dressing room.
In an interview after the medal ceremony with the American Broadcasting Company, Collett said the national anthem meant nothing to him. He explained that he had felt unable to honor the anthem because of the struggle faced by African Americans at the time: “I couldn’t stand there and sing the words because I don’t believe they’re true. I wish they were. I believe we have the potential to have a beautiful country, but I don’t think we do.” The pair were banned from future Olympic competition by the IOC.
Collett died in 2010 after a long battle with cancer. On the 40th anniversary of Munich, he was asked whether, knowing what he does now, he would have taken the same action. “Things are very different today,” he said, “but I’ve never been one to sing the anthem. It’s not my style.”
He wasn’t the last to use the intersection of patriotism and athletics to make a statement. A look at some others:
Delgado found himself in the midst of controversy when he refused to stand for the singing of “God Bless America,” which was played during the seventh-inning of stretch of games in the U.S. during the 2003-04 MLB season. Said Delgado of the Iraq War: “I think it’s the stupidest war ever. Who are you fighting against? You’re just getting ambushed now.”
Abdul-Rauf became the center of a storm while playing for the Denver Nuggets of the NBA in 1996. Abdul-Rauf, whose name was Chris Jackson before he converted to Islam, had been remaining in hallway or locker room for much of the season during the anthem. However, on March 10, 1996, he brought his statement out to the floor of McNichols Arena.
While the rest of the arena stood patriotically still, eyes transfixed on Old Glory in the rafters… by the dawn’s early light… Abdul-Rauf, wearing the jersey with No. 1… what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming… stood with his hands on his hips… whose broad stripes and bright stars… He stretched. … through the perilous fight… He bent over and slid his hands to his calves, to his ankles… O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming… Stretching to the tips of his $100 sneakers. And the rockets red glare… He looked everywhere but at the flag. …the bombs bursting in air. Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there… Then he sat down. O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave… It suddenly was clear to everyone that he didn’t give a s–t about that song, and that he didn’t care who knew it.
Then-Nuggets coach Bernie Bickerstaff wasn’t pleased. “Distractions,” Bickerstaff told SiriusXM Radio recently. “It caused a lot of distractions, and you know at that point the number of media members was not quite as resounding as it is today. But still, it was a distraction.”
Bickerstaff said he was blindsided by his leading scorer’s decision. Eventually, Denver management met with Abdul-Rauf and told him if he wanted to be on the team he had to stand for the anthem.
“We had him come in, to sit down and have a conversation, and the conversation was about, the one thing that we have in this life is freedom of choice, and with that choice comes consequences. And my conversation with him was simply that one of the guys I probably admired most at that time was Muhammad Ali because not only did he make a decision not to step forward, but it was the part of it, the things that he gave up, and our message basically to (Abdul-Rauf) was ‘Hey, that’s the guy I admire. If you really feel that way then you go home, and you give us a call and let us know you’re willing to walk away from that contract, and then I can really, really, respect that …
“When he got home, we got a call and he said ‘I think I want to be on the trip.’ And that’s our understanding, if you’re on the trip, then you’re standing.”
Abdul-Rauf was vilified, as 5280.com added:
The biggest affront for Abdul-Rauf, however, was when the 6,600-square-foot home he was building outside Gulfport was spray painted with Ku Klux Klan symbols and vandalized repeatedly. The 53-acre complex was to become the Abdul-Raufs’ Muslim heaven on earth, with its own cattle to slaughter, fresh water to drink, and a garden to tend. But instead of moving in, the couple decided to sell the property for $1 million, citing fears of raising children in such an outwardly hostile environment. The house slogged on the market for months. Then someone burned it down in the summer of 2001.
Abdul-Rauf moved his family to Atlanta and has been reclusive to the media in recent years.
Another form of basketball protest grew out of the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
On Saturday, Nov. 28, Knox College basketball star Ariyana Smith took the floor before her team’s basketball game with her arms raised in a “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” posture during the singing of the national anthem. Walking toward the American flag with her hands still raised in the air, Smith fell to the ground and lay there for a full 4.5 minutes to symbolize the 4.5 hours that Michael Brown’s body lay in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. Her coach immediately suspended her indefinitely; Knox College later reversed the punishment, stating that the decision was representative of the coach and not the school.
“I could not go into that gym and pretend that everything was OK,” said Smith, whose college game against Fontbonne University was in Clayton, Missouri, the same city where the grand jury chose not to indict officer Darren Wilson. “I could not play in good conscience. I could not play that game.”
In 2003, Smith, a senior guard at Manhattanville College, turned her back to the flag to protest America’s involvement in its war with Iraq.
On Sunday, Deidra Chatman, a 6-foot-6 freshman at the University of Virginia, became the second college basketball player to demonstrate against a possible war. Before a nationally televised game with eighth-ranked North Carolina, Chatman stood in line with her teammates and coaches in front of the bench. As the American flag was carried to midcourt, Chatman turned toward the baseline.
Chatman then released a statement of her own:
”I did not intend for my actions on Sunday to offend anyone,” the statement said. ”I would much rather have the attention focused on our team. Since we are a team, in the future I will stand with my teammates facing the flag honoring our country.”
For good measure, the University of Virginia added a statement, too:
”Deidra Chatman was making a personal statement when she decided to face away from the American flag during the playing of the national anthem. Ms. Chatman was not speaking on behalf of the university.”
“For years I have wondered how I would’ve weathered the backlash from my protest in the age of social media. Now, I am watching it happen. Colin Kaepernick has a vastly greater platform than I did, which will make his protest more visible, more impactful and more dangerous. I am beyond proud of his conviction and hope sports fans who cheered him on for his athletic skills will stand by him still and affirm that we don’t check our freedoms in the locker room. For us activists, Colin will need our support and solidarity. He is using his platform to stand up to oppression, joining a small but growing number of athletes to do so. We should rise to the occasion, not just for him but for us as well.”