Written by Jordan S.

It was 1968, the summer Olympics were being played in Mexico City. The 200-meter race champions stood on the winners’ podium. Tommie Smith won gold, Peter Norman silver, and John Carlos bronze. As the United States’ national anthem played, Smith raised his right glove-covered hand, and Carlos raised his left. Both were African-American.  Peter Norman, who was an Australian white male, stood there with pride as he had an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge pinned to his chest. He was supporting Smith and Carlos. Smith and Carlos were shoeless, wearing only black socks to symbolize black poverty. This was later labeled as the Black Power Salute, which struck outrage upon some American citizens who sent death threats to Smith and Carlos as well as their families. Some people, however, praised Smith and Carlos for standing up for what they believed in. As athletes, Smith and Carlos were able to spread their message to millions of people all around the world. Unfortunately, they were ostracized by the American people, causing their careers to go on a downhill spiral.

Fast forward to July 2014, Staten Island, New York. Eric Gardner, an African-American, 44 year-old male, died from a heart attack that was the result of police brutality. In early August of 2014, another fatality occurred due to police brutality. Michael Brown, a nineteen year-old, African-American teen was shot in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white cop, Darren Wilson. In both cases, neither of the police officers involved were indicted by the grand jury. This sparked outrage among the public. Just like the civil rights era, many Americans protested against the police both before and after hearing the verdict. In Ferguson, protests became violent, as people were burning buildings and looting local stores. Across the nation people have been protesting ever since the verdicts were released. People had various ways of protesting; some marched, some laid down and pretended to be dead, and some athletes used their popularity to stand up for African-American injustice.

Just like in 1968, when athletes Smith and Carlos stood on the winners’ podium and held their glove-covered fists in the air, athletes took on the role of raising awareness for the injustices that recently took place. In the NFL, St. Louis Rams' players Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, Jared Cook, Chris Givens, and Kenny Britt, walked out of the tunnel onto the field with their hands up. They were demonstrating the “hands up, don’t shoot” protest that people in Ferguson have been demonstrating. This nonviolent protest caused a lot of tension between the St. Louis police and the Rams organization. In a CNN online article by Ashley Fantz, she quotes, the St. Louis police association. “[The players] chose to ignore the mountains of evidence released from the St. Louis County Grand Jury this week. The gesture has become synonymous with assertions that Michael Brown was innocent of any wrongdoing and attempting to surrender peacefully when Wilson, according to some now-discredited witnesses, gunned him down in cold blood.” Rams’ coach, Jeff Fisher, said, “They, [the players], are exercising their right to free speech.” The Police association’s business manager, Jeff Roorda, was quoted saying that “it is unthinkable that homegrown athletes would so publicly perpetuate a narrative that has been disproved over and over again.” The police felt that the athletes actions on the field were sending a derogorty message about police officers. The police association was searching for an apology from the Rams’ organization, but Rams’ spokesman Artis Twyman told CNN, “We did not apologize.” According to USA Today, the NFL is the most watched sport on television in the United States. The Rams’ players actions received a lot of exposure, bringing even more negative attention to the Michael Brown case, which upset the police. Once the Rams’ players demonstrated “hands up don’t shoot”, other athletes began to follow the trend and speak their truth.

Lebron James, the NBA’s most polarizing athlete, wore an “I can’t breathe” shirt while he was warming up to play the Brooklyn Nets on December 8th. Lebron wasn’t the only one that night to wear that shirt. A handful of Brooklyn Nets players and other Cleveland Cavaliers players also wore the I-can’t-breathe-shirts. When asked about the T-shirt by ESPN, James responded by saying, “It's just for us to make a [statement] to understand what we're going through as a society.” James and other NBA players are using their star power to create awareness, and as James explained in an interview with ESPN, “It was a message to the family. That I'm sorry for their loss, sorry to his wife. That's what it's about.” This non-violent form of protesting has brought a lot of awareness about this incident. The NBA is very popular amongst the citizens of the US, and when something like this happens, it gets spread quickly. James made people aware of the situation and people noticed.

What is one’s responsibility to injustice? The athletes from the black power salute in 1968, the Rams player’s demonstrating “hands up don’t shoot”, and the NBA players wearing “I can’t breathe” shirts, answered this question of responsibility. It is not only athletes who are taking serious social issues into their own hands; others across the nation are creating awareness about these issues by protesting. However, the beneficial thing about having an athlete participate in a non-violent protest, is that they are role models, watched by millions of people, so their message reaches a wider audience. What happened in New York and Ferguson is a shame. It is sad that these types of injustices happen in the U.S., and it is sad that famous athletes have to take matters into their own hands for things to change. Injustices are never good; however, it is one’s responsibility to raise awareness so that these injustices do not happen again. Athletes, both in 1968 and 2014, have taken on the responsibility to serve as role models to fight injustices in the United States.