Can Sport Save America From Itself?

Sometimes, sport and politics do mix.

23/09/2016 12:11 PM AEST | Updated 24/09/2016 8:29 AM AEST
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This latest protest pic was from September 18.

As Americans protest in the streets against the shootings of black people by police, support is coming from another source -- America's sportsmen and women.

The first major moment of solidarity came in July at the ESPY Awards, ESPN's self-styled "Oscars of Sport". Four famous basketballers -- Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Paul -- opened the night with a call to stop the violence.

"Generations ago, legends like Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali... and countless others, they set a model for what athletes should stand for," said Paul, the LA Clippers' point guard. "So we choose to follow in their footsteps."

"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," said Anthony, who was instrumental in helping Team USA beat Australia at the Rio Olympics.

"The racial profiling has to stop. The shoot-to-kill mentality has to stop. Not seeing the value of black and brown bodies has to stop. But also the retaliation has to stop. The endless gun violence in places like Chicago, Dallas, not to mention Orlando, it has to stop. Enough. Enough is enough," said Wade.

This was strong stuff. But if actions speak louder than words, it all went to another level in a pre-season NFL game on September 1 when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled in protest during the American national anthem instead of standing in the traditional hand-on-heart pose.

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That's Kaepernick on the right on his original September 1 anthem protest, which he has since repeated often. Alongside him is teammate Eric Reid.

There was an interesting double symbolism in the kneel. In American football, to "take a knee" (as in, to kneel), is what quarterbacks like Kaepernick do to run the clock down in a game where the result is already decided. It's a passive, non-combative tactic -- just like Kaepernick's protest.

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick explained afterwards.

Others had come before Kaepernick. High school footballers, professional soccer players, volleyball players and most notably, players from America's Women's National Basketball Association, the WNBA, all added their voices to the outrage.

After a WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the Indiana Fever in July, players from both teams spoke in support of shooting vitims instead of basketball. Before that game and a few previous games, they had warmed up in black shirts honouring Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and the five Dallas police officers.

The New York Liberty team in their protest training shirts.

The WNBA fined each team $5,000 fine and each player $500 for breaking rules relating to uniforms. The fines were later rescinded, in a clear sign that the players had touched a public nerve.

"While we expect players to comply with league rules and uniform guidelines, we also understand their desire to use their platform to address important societal issues." WNBA president Lisa Borders said in a statement.

Despite the swell of public support, players across many different sport have received hate messages and even death threats. In a memorable retort to the cowards, Kaepernick -- who has a white mother and a black father -- said killing him would prove his point.

"To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way," he said. "There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

This week, the issue took an interesting turn. Steve Kerr coached the Golden State Warriors to the NBA title. Like the 49ers, the Warriors are a San Francisco-based team, and Kerr this week spoke out in support of Kaepernick.

"No matter what side of the spectrum you're on, I would hope every American is disgusted with what's going on in the country, what just happened in Tulsa two days ago with Terence Crutcher," Kerr said in a statement which you can watch in the video above.

"Doesn't matter what side you're on on the Kaepernick stuff, you better be disgusted with the things that are happening."

Meanwhile, several other NFL players have since joined Kaepernick, including Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall, who knelt through the anthem during the NFL's opening game and has lost two endorsement deals because of it. He has since gained a fresh sponsor.

There's little doubt that the majority of Americans are disgusted with what's happening on the streets of America. Maybe they didn't need sportspeople to help them feel that way. But there's no doubt people of all colours in American professional sport are helping make the outrage mainstream.

Who says there's no place for politics in sport?

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