Muhammad Ali’s historical refusal to participate in the Vietnam War, roundly denouncing US imperialism abroad and racism at home, was more than simply a landmark moment in sports history; it was a socially transformative event that further legitimized dissent against the war effort. A short while later, the Black Power salute given at the 1968 Olympics, when U.S. track-and-field stars John Carlos and Tommy Smith raised their fists during the US national anthem, also to protest the war in Vietnam, racism in America, and the mistreatment of Black athletes, further proved the existence of a social justice current in the sports world. And in much the same way that, decades earlier, Jesse Owens outran Adolf Hitler’s “master race” sprinter to win the Gold Medal at Berlin–powerfully denying Hitler proof he desired of Aryan supremacy–the acts of these athletes were more than simply symbols of resistance. They were direct confrontations with forces of reaction and oppression.
The sports arena has once again become the site of not just isolated repudiations of the tenets of white supremacy and protests against racism—but the focal point of a major groundswell of popular protest at what many consider to be the core of American culture. As Knicks power forward Carmelo Anthony noted at the ESPY awards in July, “The system is broken, the problems are not new, the violence is not new, and the racial divide definitely is not new, but the urgency for change is definitely at an all-time high.” In that same spirit of protest, today National Football League players en masse took a knee, linked arms, and even refused to take the field during the national anthem, in collective protest of Trump’s racist denunciation of social protest and dissent by athletes. NBA superstar LeBron James denounced Trump for insulting professional colleagues with the Golden State Warriors, who refused to visit Trump’s White House.
As support at the highest political levels once again buoys racism and xenophobic nationalism in the US and abroad, the Campus Antifascist Network stands in solidarity with US professional and amateur athletes protesting Donald Trumps’ and others’ continued efforts to purposefully equate uncritical support for white supremacy, white ethno-nationalism, and white systems of racial oppression with the values of patriotism. We join these athletes in a commitment to naming racial injustice in all its forms publicly, repeatedly, and vociferously.
CAN also unwaveringly offers its support to the campus athletics community — student athletes, staff, trainers and coaches. We are in solidarity with student athletes like football players from the University of Michigan, Michigan State, and the University of Nebraska who bravely demonstrated in solidarity on the sidelines before games last year. We also voice our support for staff and coaches helping young men and women learn the values of teamwork, humanity, and equality.
There is yet a wide gap between Trump’s vitriolic racist rants and fascism. But Black athletes in particular today are acting from a keen political memory and experience of racism and white nationalism’s role in keeping oppressed and marginalized communities under the heel of reactionary state power. As students and educators we commit to keep that memory and those experiences alive in our classrooms, and to fight against racism and name the ways fascism always relies on bigotry and dehumanization.
Alongside all these brave athletes, CAN takes a knee.