Player Protests: When Athletes Stand Up (Or Kneel) For Social Justice Issues We're seeing something we did not witness a decade or two ago: Sports as a vehicle not just for making money, but for social change.
NPR logo

Player Protests: When Athletes Stand Up (Or Kneel) For Social Justice Issues

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/494749929/494837293" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Player Protests: When Athletes Stand Up (Or Kneel) For Social Justice Issues

Player Protests: When Athletes Stand Up (Or Kneel) For Social Justice Issues

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/494749929/494837293" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's talk about violence in this country and the response to it. Protests by athletes against police violence are spreading. And there's no reason to think the protests will die away after this week's shootings of black men by police in Oklahoma and North Carolina. Commentator Christine Brennan is watching what has happened on the field since San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, BYLINE: Week two of the NFL season is over. And what once would have been unimaginable is now becoming commonplace. I'm talking about protests, player protests - visible, controversial, much talked about displays during the playing of the national anthem before NFL games in stadiums around the country. These protests began nearly a month ago when San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to sit rather than stand while "The Star-Spangled Banner" was being played during a preseason game. Since then, we've seen various athletes sit, kneel, lock arms and raise fists during the anthem, they say, out of concern and anger over violence against African-Americans in our cities.

The vast majority of these athletes have been NFL players, but not all - high school football players from New Jersey to Washington state, from Illinois to Texas, have joined in; so have a few college players and soccer star Megan Rapinoe, taking a knee even while playing for the U.S. national team, something that would have been unthinkable for any U.S. Olympian just last month in Rio. Once again, sports have taken us to an important national conversation, whether it's the Ray Rice video and domestic violence, or Lance Armstrong and cheating, or Title IX and the advancement of women in our nation, we should see these as cherished conversations that reach people who otherwise might not take part. Defend the protest or despise it, it gets us talking.

We're seeing something we did not witness during the Michael Jordan-Tiger Woods era a decade or two ago, sports as a vehicle not just for making money but for social change. Jordan and Woods were not much interested in speaking out about anything remotely controversial. In this way, they were significantly out of step with the athletes who came before them - Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe, Tommie Smith and John Carlos to name a few. So it appears that highly publicized social activism and sports skipped a generation. It's back now.

Yet, it's natural to ask if this isn't all talk, all kneeling and no real action. Well, not for Kaepernick - he has vowed to donate $1 million this year to groups in the Bay Area that are fighting social inequality. His team, the 49ers, have vowed to match it. Many have wondered where this all leads, not necessarily next week but in the next few months, even into next year. Do the protests eventually wither away? Does everyone just get bored by it all? Well, the new NBA season starts in a little more than a month. And we certainly should expect to see protests there - college basketball, too, both men's and women's - and high school hoops as well. From one season to the next, sports keep coming. It sounds like the conversation will, too.

INSKEEP: Christine Brennan, sports columnist for USA Today.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.