The perilous fight
Fifty years ago today, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists in protest for human rights at the 1968 Olympics. The world of sports would never be the same. Athletes protesting during the national anthem has been one of the hottest topics in sports since Colin Kaepernick reignited the movement during the NFL preseason in 2016. Kaepernick explained that he was sitting during the anthem to protest racial injustice and ongoing police brutality. Ever since, the sports world has swirled with debate as more and more athletes have participated in silent protests by taking a knee, locking arms or raising a fist during the anthem.
Regardless of which side of the debate you're on, the conversation isn't going anyway anytime soon. With that in mind, here's a recap, in photos, of notable athletes who refused to "stick to sports" when the spotlight was on them.Credit: Getty Images
Tommie Smith and John Carlos
In 1968, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the world one of the most iconic sports images of all-time at the Mexico City Summer Olympics. As the anthem played during the medal ceremony for the 200 final, Smith, who won gold, and Carlos, the bronze medalist, raised black-gloved fists and bowed their heads. In the ensuing firestorm, both were suspended from the U.S. team and received death threats.
"We were just human beings who saw a need to bring attention to the inequality in our country," Smith told HBO during a documentary on the 1968 games. "I don't like the idea of people looking at it as negative. There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head, acknowledging the American flag -- not symbolizing a hatred for it."Credit: Getty Images
In 1995, Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf found himself at the center of controversy after his decision to stretch or stay in the locker room during the anthem led to a reporter questioning him about it. Abdul-Rauf explained that he viewed the flag as a symbol of racism and oppression. The ensuing backlash was fierce. After being suspended by the NBA, Abdul-Rauf reached a deal where he stood for the anthem, in prayer, with his head bowed and his hands out. He said that the protest ended his NBA career ahead of its time, at just 29, and that the same would happen to Kaepernick in 2016, when his protest started.
"They begin to try to put you in vulnerable positions," Abdul-Rauf told The Undefeated's Jesse Washington. "They play with your minutes, trying to mess up your rhythm. Then they sit you more. Then what it looks like is, well, the guy just doesn't have it anymore, so we trade him. It's kind of like a setup. You know, trying to set you up to fail and so when they get rid of you, they can blame it on that as opposed to, it was really because he took these positions. They don't want these type of examples to spread, so they've got to make an example of individuals like this."Credit: Getty Images
Kaepernick's silent protest went viral after a photo of him sitting on the bench during the anthem during a preseason game caught fire on Twitter. After the game, Kaepernick explained his actions.
"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," he told reporters. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."
What ensued was a blazing wildfire of hot takes and general insanity, with many NFL players following Kaepernick's lead. Kaepernick, after opting out of his 49ers contract, remains a free agent while numerous inferior QBs have been signed to NFL rosters, leading to a large protest in New York calling for an NFL boycott and the head of the NAACP asking for a meeting with Roger Goddell.Credit: Getty Images
Reid, a native of Louisiana, was the first player to join Kaepernick's protest. The 49ers safety took a knee next to the QB during the 49ers' 2016 preseason finale in San Diego, which coincided with the Chargers' annual "Salute to the Military" night.
"Things have happened in Louisiana and the injustices that are happening could have happened to one of my family members," Reid told the New York Times. "It touched close to home and I just wanted to show my support to him and let him know that he is not the only person who feels the way that he feels. There are a lot of people out there that feel that way."Credit: Kirby Lee, Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The Seattle Seahawks corner sat for the anthem during the team's 2016 preseason finale at Oakland. Lane's message was simple: "Just standing behind him [Kaepernick], what he said," he explained to The Seattle Times. "Just piggybacking what he said, for the justice."
Lane's protests carried over to the 2017 season. During Week 2 of the 2017 preseason, a photo emerged of Justin Britt resting his hand on a sitting Michael Bennett's shoulder in solidarity, while Lane faced away from the flag and toward his teammates.Credit: Getty Images
Rodney Axson was the first athlete to protest at the high school level. Axson, from Brunswick High in Cleveland, took a knee during the anthem after hearing teammates say the n-word before a game against a predominantly black school. Axson said that when he confronted his teammates, they told him it "wasn't meant for [him]." He responded by kneeling for the anthem, which led to death threats. His protest caught steam around the country, with players and coaches from more than 65 high schools joining in on the silent protests during the 2016 season.Credit: Cleveland magazine
Soccer star Megan Rapinoe, a member of the Seattle Reign who also plays on the U.S. Women's National Team, was the first professional female athlete to join the protest. Before a game between the Reign and the Chicago Red Stars, she elected to take a knee during the anthem in solidarity with Kaepernick. Controversy ensued, and U.S. Soccer quickly passed an addendum saying that players had to stand during the anthem without exception. It was the first sports governing body to take such a drastic step.
"Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties," Rapinoe told American Soccer Now. "It was something small that I could do and something that I plan to keep doing in the future and hopefully spark some meaningful conversation around it. It's important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this. We don't need to be the leading voice, of course, but standing in support of them is something that's really powerful."Credit: @gbpackfan32/Twitter
The Broncos linebacker, a former teammate of Kaepernick's at Nevada, knelt in solidarity before the 2016 NFL season opener in Denver, a nationally televised game against the Panthers in a runback of the Super Bowl. Marshall wanted to make the cause of his protest clear.
"I'm not against the military," he said. "I'm not against the police or America. I'm just against social injustice. I'm proud of it. I don't regret it. I know this is right."
The following day, Air Academy Federal Credit Union announced it was ending its endorsement partnership with Marshall over his protest. Marshall later met with local law enforcement officials in Denver to discuss policing tactics.Credit: USATSI
The cornerback raised his fist with his head down during the anthem for the Chiefs' 2016 season opener at Arrowhead Stadium. Peters clarified that his raised fist was a prideful declaration of his heritage, not necessarily a protest.
"I was just stating how I'm black, and I love being black -- I'm supporting Colin in what he's doing as far as raising awareness with the justice system," he told the Kansas City Star. "But I didn't mean anything (bad) by it."
In what may have been one of the more ringing endorsements of an athlete from a coach, Andy Reid didn't mince words about Peters.
"Listen, I'm going to tell you we're in America," he said. "This kid comes from Oakland and does a phenomenal job in the community and Oakland. There's no question he respects … law enforcement, military; you don't ever question that with this guy. He just wants what is right, like we all do … What the players are doing right now is important. Let's just all get along, and that would be a beautiful thing."Credit: Getty Images
Jason McCourty, Jurrell Casey, Wesley Woodyard, DaQuan Jones
Several Titans teammates remained standing for the anthem, with their fists raised, before the 2016 season opener against the Vikings. McCourty, whose father served in the Army and whose older brother fought in the Persian Gulf War, clarified that he meant no disrespect.
"I'm actually from New York and was in high school, in ninth grade, in New Jersey," McCourty told the Nashville Tennessean, "and remember the day the towers were hit, and how chaotic it was for everybody in school not knowing what was going on, and getting home and my mom watching the news and being at a loss of words to even explain to me what happened. So definitely no disrespect to those people. I know how tough it was."
"It's something that I stand for and something that I believe that needed to be brought to focus," Casey added.Credit: Getty Images
Arian Foster, Jelani Jenkins, Kenny Stills, Michael Thomas
The Miami Dolphins joined in on the Week 1 protests as well in Seattle. The ever-zen Arian Foster joined Jenkins, Stills and Thomas in the protest, with Foster giving the ambiguous statement: "If kneeling for your flag is disrespectful then kneeling for your god is disrespectful."
Dolphins head coach Adam Gase played politician, saying that it is "their right" and that there was "nothing that [he] would say one way or the other."
Jenkins tried to clarify his intentions. "I chose to get involved to see if I could create change, raise awareness," he said. "And I want to make it clear that there is no disrespect to the military or to police officers -- I'm not about that. I love everyone. I would like to keep moving forward in the right direction with everybody: equal rights, equal opportunity. From my position, it doesn't seem that it's happening. That's why I took a stand."Credit: USATSI
In the first showing of team-wide solidarity, the Seahawks all linked arms during the anthem during their 2016 opener on Sept. 11.
"We wanted to do something together, as a team," Doug Baldwin said. "We wanted to honor the lives that were lost 15 years ago [on 9/11]. The message we're sending is that, yes, there are things in our country that need to be changed. But that's why this country is so great, because we're never afraid of facing those challenges head on. In this locker room of 53 guys, we believe that as a team, the only way we're going to win the Super Bowl is if we do it together. That's where we arrived that, if we're going to do this, we have to do it together."Credit: USATSI
Martellus Bennett and Devin McCourty
The two Patriots stood with fists raised during the team's 2016 season opener in Arizona on Sunday Night Football. McCourty, to reinforce his point that the declaration of pride wasn't a protest, says he wore socks the day before with American flags on them.
"I believe in this country. I love this country," he said. "My father was in the Army. My older brother was in the Army. Those men and women go out there and put their life on the line. I respect that."Credit: Twitter
Antoine Bethea and Eli Harold, Robert Quinn and Kenny Britt
Teammates Bethea and Harold joined in on Kaepernick and Reid's protest during the Week 1 matchup between the Rams and 49ers on Monday Night football. Standing with their fists raised, they showed support of Kaepernick and Reid. Across the field, Robert Quinn and Kenny Britt also joined the cause, raising their fists for the Rams.Credit: USATSI
Steven Means, Malcolm Jenkins, Ron Brooks
The three Eagles players raised their fists during the anthem before playing the Bears on Monday Night Football in Week 2 of the 2016 season. Jenkins actually initially bemoaned the protest during the anthem, but he came around to supporitng Kaepernick, going so far as to call teams that won't sign the free agent QB "cowards."Credit: Twitter
Falcons and Saints
During a Monday Night Football game in September, the Saints and the Falcons met at midfield following the anthem and linked arms. The idea was apparently the brainchild of Saints' head coach Sean Payton to show unity throughout the league, although the message overall was seen as controversial by some viewers.Credit: USATSI
Bruce Irvin and Malcolm Smith
The former Seahawks teammates, reunited in Oakland, joined the anthem protests in Sept. 2016 and continued to raise their fists before games for weeks on end.Credit: Getty Images
Mike Evans didn't initially join in the anthem protests, but after President Donald Trump was elected in November, he decided to sit during the anthem before a game against the Bears. After the game, Evans called Trump's campaign and election "a joke." Unfortunately for him, his protest started the day after Veterans Day, and was widely panned. He would later apologize for the protest.
"I want to start by apologizing to all the U.S. military members, their families, and the fans who I offended by my actions on Sunday. It was never my intention as I have tremendous respect for the men and women who serve our country. I have very strong emotions regarding some of the many issues that exist in our society today. I chose to sit as an expression of my frustration towards this year's election. It was very personal for me, as it was for so many Americans. With that being said, I will not sit again during the National Anthem because I want to focus my efforts on finding more effective ways to communicate my message and bring about change by supporting organizations and movements that fight for equal rights for minorities. This Sunday, I will be back to standing with my teammates."Credit: USATSI
The Toronto Raptors, New York Knicks, Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings and Washington Wizards all linked arms before their 2016 preseason openers. The Cleveland Cavaliers, among other teams, would follow suit.
"We wanted to show solidarity," the Raptors' Kyle Lowry said. "We're a team, we're all together, we're all one race, we're all human beings. We all understand that things in the United States and the things in the world [aren't] the best right now."Credit: USATSI
The Golden State Warriors' David West made it public that he'd been quietly protesting the anthem for years, in a move so subtle that teammates and coaches didn't know. West stood slightly behind his teammates during the anthem, to address systemic issues in how African-Americans are treated within the country.
"What about education? What about infant mortality? How about how we die younger and our babies die sooner?" he told the Undefeated's Marc Spears. "We die. [Black men] have the shortest life expectancy. C'mon, man. The health care system? There are so many [problems]. It's like, whatever. I can't start talking about civic issues. I can't start talking about civility and being a citizen if [expletive] don't even think I'm a human being. How can you talk about progress and how humans interrelate with one another when you don't even recognize our humanity? We got to somehow get that straight first so we're on the same playing field. And that's how I feel. There is just a lot of stuff, man."Credit: USATSI
Beast Mode set off another round of anthem protests in the NFL when he sat on a Gatorade tub during the anthem before the Raiders' opening preseason game against the Cardinals. His protest came nearly a year after Kaepernick began his silent protest during the preseason and on the same weekend as the violent, racially-charged protests in Charlottesville, Va., that left one woman dead and 19 injured. Lynch, who didn't take questions from reporters after the game, told Raiders coach Jack Del Rio that he had been sitting out the anthem for years, although old photos and game tape proved that wasn't exactly the case.Credit: USATSI
Michael Bennett, Justin Britt
Bennett, in response to the violence in Charlottesville, sat for the anthem before the Seahawks' preseason opener against the Chargers. A staunch supporter of Kaepernick, he announced his intention to protest the anthem throughout 2017, and then advocated for white players to join their black teammates in solidarity. "It would take a white player to really get things changed," he said. A few days later, Justin Britt, one of his white teammates, laid a hand on Bennett's shoulder while he sat on the bench during the anthem before the Seahawks played the Vikings.
"What Mike said, and how he said a white player should do it, that kind of triggered in my mind, because I see what's going on," Britt said after the game, via ESPN.com's Sheil Kapadia. "We all do. And we all have choices whether to be an example or be a follower. I always tell kids: Don't be a follower. Be the one they're following. So whether it's good or bad in some eyes, I feel like I'm just supporting my teammate, supporting why he's doing it and his reasons, and trying to encourage others."Credit: USATSI
Chris Long, Malcolm Jenkins and Ron Brooks
Chris Long, in response to Bennett's call for white players to join the protests for social equality, and a native of Charlottesville, Va., rested his arm around Jenkins' shoulder in a show of support, along with teammate Ron Brooks.
"I've heard a lot of people say you need white athletes to get involved in the anthem protests," Long said. "I've said before I'll never kneel for an anthem, because the flag means something different for everybody in this country, but I support my peers. And if you don't see why you need allies for people that are fighting for equality right now, I don't think you'll ever see it. So my thing is, Malcolm is a leader, and I'm here to show support as a white athlete."Credit: USATSI
Cleveland Browns players
Hue Jackson said that he hoped that the Browns wouldn't join in on the protests, but almost 12 Browns players took a knee during the anthem, including TE Seth DeValve, a white player married to an African-American woman. DeValve explained his decision to take a knee.
"I myself will be raising children that don't look like me, and I want to do my part as well to do everything I can to raise them in a better environment than we have right now," DeValve said. "So I wanted to take the opportunity with my teammates during the anthem to pray for our country and also to draw attention to the fact that we have work to do."
The following week, every Browns player stood for the anthem at the urging of Jim Brown, who reportedly told the team not to "disrespect the flag."Credit: USATSI