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Protest Song: Athletes Are Not Going to ‘Stick to Sports’ and That’s an Admirably

The real issue behind the wave of national anthem dissent – Racial Inequality – has existed for decades, and it won’t be resolved any time soon

By Charles P. Pierce | Sports Illustrated | September 25, 2017


On Sept. 16, 1960, before a home game against the Athletics, Cleveland pitcher James (Mudcat) Grant was standing in the bullpen singing along with the national anthem. Grant decided to do a little barbering of the lyrics. He adjusted the last line to “This land is not so free/I can’t go to Mississippi.” This was some topical humor of a very high order: opposition to the civil rights movement was growing more violent, and, as had been the case since the Civil War, Mississippi was the cone of the volcano. Michael Schwerner was leading civil rights protests on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Andrew Goodman was a classmate of Paul Simon’s at Queens College in New York City. James Chaney was a star athlete in track and football at Harris Junior College and a budding civil rights activist. Medgar Evers was organizing boycotts in and around Jackson, Miss. Within four years, Grant would be traded to the Twins, and all four of those men would be murdered by the forces Grant sang about that September day.

The Indians’ bullpen coach, a Texan named Ted Wilks, took exception to Grant’s improvised lyrics and, according to Grant’s account, called the pitcher a “black so and so.” In reply, Grant told Wilks that Texas was worse than Russia. Grant then got dressed and left the park. The next day, Cleveland manager Jimmie Dykes suspended him for the season without pay. Wilks apologized but Grant refused to accept it. He would no longer accept that this racist invective was part of the cost of doing business as an African-American athlete in the U.S.

I mention all this in support of one of several things to which you must stipulate if you’re going to talk sensibly about the controversy that blew up over the weekend, and the ongoing controversy regarding displaced quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose protest against police brutality is at the heart of what went on in stadiums all over the world:

1) The inclusion of a national anthem—any national anthem—in a sporting event necessarily politicizes that event. Historically, this is best demonstrated by protests at the Olympic Games. Everyone remembers Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City in 1968. But few remember Czechoslovakian gymnast Vera Caslavska, who bowed her head and looked away from the Soviet flag while sharing the top spot on the medal podium with the U.S.S.R.’s Larisa Petrik at the same Games, only two months after Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring revolt of 1968. When Caslavska got home, she was investigated by the new government and forbidden to travel or compete for several years.

2) The protests of today are not about the anthem or the flag or the troops, or even about Donald Trump. The protestors are high-profile African-American athletes raising awareness of how lower-profile African-Americans are often mistreated by police officers.

3) All effective protest is inconvenient and, in its own way, uncivil. The Boston Tea Party was an act of vandalism. Critics’ appeal to “find a better way to protest” is really a call for self-sabotage, and it’s a dodge that dates back to the Olive Branch Petition of 1775.

4) The wealthy athletes protesting worked much harder for their money than the president in question ever has for his.

In short, if you’re going to perform national anthems, you’re going to have politics. And if you have politics, you’re going to have political statements and, this being the United States of America, those statements are not always going to make everyone comfortable. And once military-related promotions reached a level that made even John McCain uncomfortable, those statements had to get louder, if only to be heard over the fighter jets, and more garish, if only to be seen beyond the giant midfield flags.

The way to avoid this, of course, is to de-emphasize the anthem ritual, and return to the days before 2009 when it was common practice for teams to remain in the locker room while the anthem was played. (During this interlude, of course, fans generally fled to the concession stands.) Unfortunately, today, it would take courage beyond that possessed by most owners and league commissioners to take this simple step.

This is why, over the weekend, we had so many owners framing the issue as a matter of standing behind their employees’ free-speech rights. The NFL power structure chose a relatively anodyne approach to the whole matter. It enabled the league to stay away from the issue that prompted the protests in the first place, the issue that very likely has kept Kaepernick from getting a job. Those same owners, along with commissioner Roger Goodell, don’t want any part of the issue of why African-Americans end up dead on the pavement after traffic stops and other encounters with police officers. But ultimately the owners and commissioners may not have a choice: The real issue behind the protests has been out there all along.

It was there in the summer of 2016 when WNBA players demonstrated in protest of the police killings of Philando Castile in Minneapolis and of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. (The WNBA’s players have been out front on the issue longer than most athletes. On Sunday, the Minnesota Lynx linked arms and the Los Angeles Sparks  left the floor during the anthem before Game 1 of the WNBA Finals in Minneapolis.) It was there in 2012 when the Miami Heat  wore hoodies to remember Trayvon Martin, and in 2014 when LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose and others warmed up in T-shirts reading, “I can’t breathe,” reportedly the last thing Eric Garner said before dying because of a chokehold applied by an officer on Staten Island. Seen as a continuum, there is no end in sight to this tragic series of events. It is reminiscent of the 1960s, except now there is instant communication and the athletes know how to use it better than their employers. Isolating the “troublemakers” is going to be impossible. Smith and Carlos got thrown out of the Olympics and were disappeared for a time from their sport, as thoroughly as Caslavska was in Czechoslovakia. It’s almost impossible to imagine that happening today; there are too many options to get your message out, too many ways to rally support.

There’s a history to this issue and that history provides formidable momentum, so, very likely, this conflict will be with us for a while. And Donald Trump, who never saw a crack in the pavement he couldn’t turn into an earthquake, is not going to absent himself from the controversy that he has done so much to stir up.

There is something admirably American in the way this is headed, it should be noted. In Chicago, for example, most of the Steelers stayed in the locker room or in the tunnel rather than appear on the sideline for the anthem. The exception was left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger and combat veteran who stood with his hand over his heart just outside the tunnel. From a free-speech standpoint, this was a perfect moment. Villanueva did what he thought was right. His teammates did what they thought was right. And then they all got together and . . . lost to the Bears 23–17, but that wasn’t the point. Everybody handled the situation with dignity and grace. Sunday, Sept. 24, was one of the oddest afternoons of fundamental Americanism that we’ve seen in an awfully long time, and it was directed by U.S. citizens against misbehaving institutions of their own government—specifically against the president, but also against that which Marvin Gaye called out as “trigger-happy policin'” in 1971 on an album that included backup vocals from Mel Farr and Lem Barney, two Detroit Lions who did not stick to sports. Make me wanna holler, indeed.

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