What kind of protests will we see in mainstream U.S team sports?


In the midst of one of the most turbulent years in recent history, the political climate especially in the United States, has reached a boiling point. Covid-19 quarantine in April were usurped by the following civil rights protests honoring Georgy Floyd in May. No matter where you are, it’s hard to escape the polarization gripping the United States and the globe.

Obviously the world of sporting and athletics has taken a backseat to these much more important issues. But with the return of major team based sports in North America becoming more and more set, fans should be expecting there be some form of demonstration. What form and to what extent are impossle to know, but it would be foolish not to anticipate some kind of action.

There are many people who don’t like the mixture of athletics and politics, but to try to separate the two is asinine. The formation of athletics in an organized competitive sense (i.e The Ancient Olympic Games) was in essence for political entities to compete without the loss of human life. And while it is certainly different now, the two domains are forever linked.

It can be difficult to listen to people who make millions of dollars playing sports, to comment on the inequality of a society. But for athletes with the platform they have to just ignore what is happening would be irresponsible. Based off what we currently are seeing around the world, one would assume that taking a knee in solidarity may be the obvious route of demonstration. But for the United States, a country where the protests are impacting the country on a far greater scale, we could see sports-based protests take on an evenform.

Here are some things we may see come the return of the major team based sports in the United States.

I know it seems like the extreme to jump to this option right away. And let’s face it, the athletes will likely never refuse to play a season or necessarily even a game. There is too much money to be lost for most players, and while it’s sad to say that monetary value can be placed ahead of social justice issues, we’ve seen time and time again it often does. Even Lebron James, often praised for his outspokenness fell deathly silent on the issue of Hongkong, when he knew that so much money was in the Chinese market. However, even if they don’t skip a whole game, their refusal to create action in some degree could send a loud message.

For example what if players refused to play for short periods of time. Whether that be at the end of games, or the end of quarters. Simply running out the clock without a meaningful ending could be disruptive enough. Chances are that the NBA may be able to conduct such a protest easily, with relatively little repercussion. A player friendly league, and a predominately black player base, it could be very easy to pull off.

However, the real challenge and success would be if the other major sports leagues like the NFL, MLB, or NHL could execute it too. As we know the NFL is one of the least player friendly leagues. They are quick to get rid of individuals that affect their bottom line. The NFL’s and MLB’s fan base also tends to be more pro-government and right leaning than the NBA, so it could also be more impactful. The NHL is overwhelmingly white, so showing solidarity amongst their player base to support a cause that largely doesn’t affect its demographic would be huge.

Is this route likely? No. But it wouldn’t be shocking either.

Whether it is Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising a fist in front of the world at The Summer Olympics in 1968, or much more recent the kneeling of NFL players led by Colin Kapernick during the anthem, a unified gesture is usually a powerful image for those spectating. A controversial topic while coupled with the national anthem, it certainly gets people’s attention.

Tommie Smith (Centre) and John Carlos (Right), raise their fist in ©Associated Press

What kind of gesture will be chosen? Well it could be a historical reference, the black power salute of a fist for instance, but more likely is taking a knee that we have seen those on the frontlines taking part in. There is also a chance that a new and creative sign that shows the hope of change moving forward. Perhaps hands up, referencing don’t shoot, clearly protesting the murder of unarmed black men. Or maybe more George Floyd specific, grasping around their necks, although this seems a little odd. Creating something different from the knee would also give the players more leeway to dodge the same punishments of their predecessors.

The problem with the gestures is we know that most leagues are not a meritocracy and run as a dictatorship. If it affects the bottom line, those who participate run the risk of being out of a job real quick. Remember it wasn't just Kapernick who was seemingly ousted, but safety Eric Reid as well.

We saw this route of branding protest specific clothes with Eric Garner in 2014, in the NBA. Simply black and white tee-shirts saying “I can’t breath”, during warmups were worn. The problem with this method is that for most people that aren’t at the games or hardcore fans, may never know this even happened. Television broadcasters could simply cut out shots of the athletes donning the apparel.

©Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY Sports

If this approach is to be truly useful in creating discourse, the apparel has to be worn during actual play. We saw some European soccer players already take to this, with Schalke’s Weston McKennie wearing an armband stating “Justice for George”. For the NBA this seems easy enough with the likes of headbands or arm bands being a staple. The NFL could possibly do this too, and use some of the on field equipment like cleats or helmets to don messages of change.

It is important for more than one player to actually go through with this. Of course seeing individuals here and there displaying these types of clothing gives small glimpse of attention. But doing so in uniform together, would attribute not just a franchise to the cause, but possible an entire city.

Whatever your stance is on the protests and the movement, you should be expecting, if not hoping that athletes take a stand. Being huge public figures, they should use the platforms they have to make a statement. Of course it won’t have a bigger impact than the actual protesters on the front lines, but in it’s own way it does help.

A writer living in Japan. Creating articles about the 2020 Tokyo Games. A regular contributor to Junkture Magazine. https://www.junkturemagazine.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store