4 Years After Colin Kaepernick's First Protest for Racial Justice, Athletes' Voices are Louder than Ever

Sports and politics typically fall on opposite ends of the very wide spectrum that makes up safe topics of conversation for backyard barbecues. You can argue with a stranger at a bar over sports. You can scream at a TV in public over sports. You can even paint your face blue or red over sports. The latter? Not so much. So what happens when the two intersect?

For years, your favorite players have probably been told to assume you'd judge their abilities differently if you knew they held differing political opinions than yourself. For so long, it was frowned upon for them to have an opinion on anything political in the public eye. As recently as four years ago, professional athletes were still being told to leave their political views out of courtside interviews and their social media posts, particularly those with black or brown skin. 

It was on August 26, 2016, that the San Francisco 49ers’s then star quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, began what later became one of the most powerful protest symbols against police brutality and systemic racism in America when he sat down during the U.S. National Anthem. Kaepernick later changed his stance to taking a knee. He was a trailblazer for the Black Lives Matter movement back in 2016, putting his career on the line to stand up for what he believed in.

He also hasn’t been signed to another team in the NFL since becoming a free agent in March 2017, despite undeniable talent and a near-perfect deep pass.

For too long, the most influential Black figures in the sports industry – the same ones that little kids look up to from their TV screens at home – have been dismissed, and made to stay silent on political issues that directly affect them. They’ve been told to “shut up and dribble,” and have had promising careers derailed by standing up for things as simple as human rights. 

That ends now. As more innocent Black lives are lost at the hands of a criminal justice system deep-rooted with racism, the cries for change are more deafening than ever – and some of the loudest voices emerging are from the sports world. 

This past Wednesday, August 26, landing exactly four years after Kaepernick’s first protest, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play in their Game 5 NBA playoff game, and 5 other teams in the league stood alongside them. 

The decision to boycott the games followed the recent police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old black man who was shot 7 times by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin after he turned his back on officers to get in his vehice, where his children waited, after attempting to break up an altercation between two women.

""The past four months have shed a light on the ongoing racial injustices facing our African-American communities,” the Bucks said in a statement Wednesday night. “Over the last few days in our home state of Wisconsin, we've seen the horrendous video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, and the additional shooting of protestors. Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.”

The team’s owners, Marc Lasry, Wes Edens and Jamie Dinan, also released a statement, saying, “The only way to bring about change is to shine a light on the racial injustices that are happening in front of us. Our players have done that and we will continue to stand alongside them and demand accountability and change.”

Other sports leagues joined the NBA in protest against racial injustices within the following hours, with the WNBA, MLB and MLS postponing some of their scheduled games Wednesday night. 

"Given the pain in the communities of Wisconsin and beyond following the shooting of Jacob Blake, we respect the decisions of a number of players not to play tonight," a statement from the MLB said. "Major League Baseball remains united for change in our society and we will be allies in the fight to end racism and injustice."

The NHL went through with their Wednesday night games, and suffered backlash from not only viewers, but its players as well.

“Actually it’s incredibly insulting as a Black man in hockey the lack of action and acknowledgement from the NHL, just straight up insulting,” Evander Kane, one of the league’s Black hockey players, tweeted out later that night.

By Thursday, all NBA, MLB and NHL playoff games had been postponed. 

The NHL released a statement indicating that the decision to postpone the playoffs was strongly a player-driven one, and that "The NHL supports the Players' decision."

The MLB’s Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays issued a joint statement following the NHL, saying, “The continued police brutality and social inequity demand immediate attention and focus from all of us — not only Black Americans and Canadians.”

The NFL and the NFL Players Association also reacted to the movement across the sports scene, and several teams decided to cancel Thursday practices in order to focus on discussing systemic racism. 

"The NFL community is united more than ever to support one another in these challenging times. We share anger and frustration, most recently as a result of the shooting of Jacob Blake," they said in a statement.

Playoff games for both the NBA and the NHL were set to resume through the weekend, and though the boycott is coming to an end, this seems to be only the beginning of an era of change. 

“When you’re Black, it’s not a movement. It’s a lifestyle. This is a walk of life. When you wake up and you’re black, that’s what it is. This is who we are,” Lebron James said in Disneyland in the early days of NBA restart in July. "We understand what's going on in society right now and we're using this NBA platform as the players, as the coaches, as organizations to continue to stand strong on that. It's a good start."