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Est. April 5, 2002
September 08, 2016 - Issue 665

Social Protest
Race Consciousness
Black Athletes

By Dr. Al-Tony Gilmore, PhD

"The visibility of black athletes through
televised sporting events, sports pages,
sports news networks, capacity filled stadiums
and arenas all across America, and product
endorsement and corporate sponsorships,
cannot be compared to any other profession,
and the cumulative impact is powerful."

Black athletes matter. In fact, however much it may be deplored, they matter and represent more to their race than they should. Of all black professionals, they are the most highly profiled. Almost a century ago, sports historian Edwin Bancroft Henderson wrote in the NAACP's Crisis magazine, that " those who maintain that a Negro historian, or editor, or philosopher, or scientist. or composer, or singer, or poet, or painter is more important than a black athlete are on sound ground, but they would be foolish to maintain that these worthy individuals have more powerful influence than the athletes." That insight was as relevant then as it is now. For the 21st Century, black business moguls, elected local, state and federal officials, prominent educators and social activists, mega-church ministers, media celebrities, cabinet level appointees and - some might argue - the President of the United States, can be added to an updated list. Still, the admonition of Henderson, by and large remains valid. Nothing has measurably changed. Recently, sociologist Harry Edwards asked a room of over 200 male middle school students and athletes which they would chose if they had a choice of being Steph Curry, LeBron James, or Barack Obama. Only three hands were raised for Obama.

Like E.F. Hutton, when black athletes speak, people listen. Some speak too often and too much about issues they ostensibly know nothing about. The opinions of Charles Barkley, for example, are solicited by the media for issues that extend far beyond his skill-set or expertise, and for which no white athlete would be asked to respond. The problem is that Barkley turns nothing down but his collar, consistently falling for the bait. The trademark frankness and candor of his brilliant commentary on basketball --something he knows a lot about - is not transferable to social issues. Many of his remarks make for national news soundbites for two reasons: their shock value and because they often position him on the wrong side of black interests. To be sure, he is entitled to his views, though the stark reality of his broad exposure means that he will be heard more than blacks who are infinitely better informed, giving him incredibly disproportionate influence in the court of public opinion, especially among the more vulnerable and celebrity impressed youth. The visibility of black athletes through televised sporting events, sports pages, sports news networks, capacity filled stadiums and arenas all across America, and product endorsement and corporate sponsorships, cannot be compared to any other profession, and the cumulative impact is powerful.

Beginning with Jack Johnson, who became the most well-known black man on the planet after winning boxing's heavyweight title in 1908, elite black athletes, with few exceptions, have had the highest name recognition among black people. Johnson was better known and more admired among most black people than his contemporary Booker T. Washington. His title coupled with his bold gestures of manhood, during the age of lynching, unrelenting violence, white supremacy and segregation, proved more appealing to blacks than Washington's accommodation and survival policies. Powerful whites were uncomfortable with his utter disregard for segregation and subservience, fearing that blacks would pattern their behavior on his defiance of social norms. In popular culture, Johnson - more than W.E.B. Du Bois - challenged both the teachings of Washington and the philosophy of white supremacy when defeating "white hopes”, proving to the on-looking world that blacks could succeed and excel when given fair opportunities to compete with whites by the same rules on an even playing field --something denied across the board in larger society. He made black folks proud of their blackness, two generations before being black and proud became a race anthem.

Across all social classes, black athletes since Johnson have been a common denominator for black pride, dignity and respect. Comparatively, Jesse Owens and Joe Louis were more admired than Walter White, Mordecai Johnson, and A. Philip Randolph; Jackie Robinson and Wilma Rudolph better known than Charles Houston, Daisy Bates and Constance Baker Motley; and Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali more visible than Benjamin E. Mays, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ralph Ellison. In the day-to-day lives of average black people - then and now - black athletes continue to resonate with black sensibilities, and since the Black Power movement of the late 1960's, more have developed a sense of social consciousness and responsibility consistent with the struggles and conditions of black people, who have increasingly come to expect more of black athletes than their exploits on the fields of athletic competition. Counseled by their agents and advisors, many elite black athletes see inherent conflicts in social activism and lucrative product endorsement deals, being careful not to be identified with controversial social issues. Some other elite black athletes --product endorsements aside -- deliberately avoid any personal identification with black organizations, their causes, or black people. Understandably, other lower-tiered black athletes are loathed to being engaged with social causes, fearful that such involvement would place their careers at risk ---and it would.

When elite black athletes assume the lead in team protest demonstrations, however, lower-tiered athletes have some comfort of protection from management repercussions. This occurred when LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant encouraged teammates – in violation of league team apparel policies – to wear t-shirts boldly printed with “I Can’t Breathe,” which were the last words uttered by Eric Garner of New York when he died in a choke-hold applied by a police officer. All of the players wore t-shirts, and by smart and deliberate design only the elite players served as spokespersons. “We have the ability to voice up, we have the platform to speak up, and we have the platform to affect change,” spoke a confident Kobe Bryant, when he raised concerns about police abuse of power in black communities. Explaining the motivation for wearing the t-shirts, James reasoned that it was necessary to make a statement expressing “what we’re going through as a society.” Taking more risk with social protest were the five angry and non-marquee black members of the NFL’s St. Louis Rams, who sprinted on the field during pre-game introductions with their hands up while shouting “Don’t Shoot,” the same gesture of Michael Brown before being fatally shot in the local suburb of Ferguson. In both instances, neither the NBA or NFL disciplined any of the protesting players, though it made league officials uncomfortable, angered some fans, and caused angst with some sports journalists.

Black athletes come in all shapes and sizes, some reared in black communities and some raised and tutored in communities and environments removed from black people. Some embrace black issues with less passion than others. Some are afraid and some are courageous. One size does not fit all. Tiger Woods and O.J. Simpson, however, are exceptions and exemptions from all classifications, because neither at the height of their fame and celebrity ever wanted to identify with black people. Woods always seemed as uncomfortable around blacks as Clarence Thomas would be at a Black Panther brunch, even going to the elaborate length of assigning himself to a race that does not exist, Calbinasian, both a comical and dead serious way of claiming he is not black. It has been said that when a person is under distress, their most sincere friends can be counted on for support. When Woods called a press conference to apologize for his infidelities with a laundry list of women, he pointed out to the press that he was appreciative that his circle of close friends were in the room, providing him with moral support during a difficult period. The camera then panned the room, and not a single black person was in it, coincidently the exact same number that was to found on his infamous laundry list. Woods presents a contradiction for black people who are proud of his groundbreaking success in a what is considered a largely white de facto segregated country club sport, while lamenting his self-imposed exile from black people.

Simpson, unlike Woods, until being charged with the murder of his wife and Ron Goldman, was more arrogant in his denial of blackness. One ESPN writer Robert Lipsyte recounted a conversation with Simpson that left him stunned. "O.J. overheard a white woman at the next table saying, "Look, there's O.J. sitting with all of those (N-words)." I remember in my naivete, saying to O.J. 'Gee, Wow, that must have been terrible for you.' And he said, "No, it was great. Don't' you understand? She knew that I wasn’t black. She saw me as O.J."

No single black athlete transcended sports and helped the nation better comprehend the intersection of race, sports and society more than Muhammad Ali, and his death forced the nation to reflect on his remarkable life. The week of national soul searching for the meaning of an American athlete was unprecedented. It resurrected memories from the changing of his name from Cassius Clay, to his refusal to join the U.S. military, to his friendship with Malcolm X, to his joining the campaign of Martin Luther King, Jr. against the war in Vietnam, to his joining the Nation of Islam, to his positions against apartheid in South Africa, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the lighting of the Olympic cauldron, and his involvement in countless other social causes, particularly those that identified with black people. And for some who did not live the era, wall-to-wall media coverage of his death taught new lessons about courage, sacrifice, commitment and racial dignity. Most striking about that week of universal testimony about his life, was that more was said about the man than the boxer. The scales of his life tilted towards social justice. His legacy extended far beyond the confined space of the four corners of the ring, touching something in the best impulses of humanity. Some younger athletes might have noted that he never had a major product endorsement, without understanding that he would have declined such sponsors if there were prerequisites that he could not speak his mind.

In the large shadow of Ali's death, a series of interesting events have taken place. Several weeks following his demise, one stands out above all others and cannot be disconnected from the lessons some elite black athletes learned from his life. Following several restless nights and agonizing nights in the wake of the controversial July police killings of two non-aggressive black men, and the retaliation targeted and cowardly murders of multiple policemen by deranged gunmen in Dallas and Baton Rouge, NBA player Carmelo Anthony decided to do something. Over the preceding year and more, he had witnessed an extended season of blacks being killed by policemen during the most basic and routine of police interventions. Being silent and saying nothing was no longer an option. Posting an Instagram, he called on black athletes to leverage their celebrity for the purpose of making a difference, to speak for those who have no national platforms. "There is no more sitting back," he wrote," and being afraid of taking and addressing political issues anymore. Those days are long gone." Responding to Anthony's clarion call, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Dwayne Wade agreed to join him a week later at the nationally televised ESPY Awards. Placing conscious over commerce, and not fearing repercussions from their multiple lucrative endorsements, their collective voices were heard nationwide, pleading with black athletes to be more accountable and responsible in promoting social justice. Most of the athletes in the audience, and viewers across America, and the media were caught by surprise. Few had any real memory of almost a half century earlier in 1967 when Carl Stokes, Cleveland's first black mayor, hosted a small gathering of athletes organized by Jim Brown, for the purpose of demonstrating solidarity with Muhammad Ali over his refusal to join the military. This was a period when no black athletes had major endorsements to place at risk, but it was before collective bargaining and cable sports, meaning that the relatively low salaries of most professional team sports athletes, required them to pursue off-season employment. Of that group that assembled in Cleveland, only Brown, Bobby Mitchell, Bill Russell, Willie Davis, and Lew Alcindor were considered elite. The others, Curtis McClinton, Walter Beach, Sid Williams, John Wooten and Jim Shorter were not, and thus, had more to lose. In addition to risking retaliation from coaches and owners, and alienation from their white teammates, they risked being cut from their team rosters, and blackballed from the NFL. Despite this, they identified with the Black Power movement, and the need for black athletes to speak out on social issues.

The Cleveland meeting is better known, but is no more significant than an incident that occurred in 1965 when the American Football League's All-Star game was scheduled for New Orleans. On arriving in the Crescent City, the black players were introduced to a hostile and racist atmosphere, routinely being refused taxis, admittance to nightspots, restaurants, and subject to racial epithets when they challenged segregation protocol on Bourbon Street and the French Quarters. All 21 black players were humiliated by the insults, and called a meeting, led by Ernie Warlick of the San Diego Chargers, at which they voted unanimously to boycott the game. Standing on the right side of history, The AFL Commissioner changed the venue to Houston where the game was played the next week. The boycott confronted American society, reflecting issues well beyond the world of sports. It underscored Congress' inability to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the South's resistance to it. More important, it signaled the ability of black athletes to affect change, by bringing national attention to pressing and unresolved social issues.

Shortly after the Cleveland gathering, Alcindor became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and made it known that he would boycott the Olympics of 1968, as a statement against the conditions of black people in America. Earlier that year a heroic movement led by Harry Edwards failed in its efforts to have black athletes boycott the games, but it inspired the iconic raised black gloves protests of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who explained to the world that every element of their altered track uniforms represented black people, from blue collar workers to those who had been lynched, to those who did not survive the middle passage. The costs for those protests were incalculable, resulting in severe hardships for their post-track career opportunities, and wreaking havoc on their personal lives. Yet, the photograph of their protest remains the most enduring and iconic of all protests by black athletes.

A generation earlier in 1936, Walter White, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, was the first black leader to advocate a boycott of the Olympic games in Berlin, Germany, as a statement against the racial hatred of blacks in America, and as a protest against Hitler's treatment of Jewish people. Writing to Jesse Owens in late 1935, then the most celebrated track athlete in the world, White made the case that "the very preeminence of American Negro athletes gives them all unparalleled opportunity to strike a blow at racial bigotry and to make other minority groups conscious of the sameness of their problems with ours and think more clearly and fight more vigorously against the wrongs from which we Negroes suffer." But it was the moral issue that White wanted Owens to consider. To participate in any games in Germany would be to tacitly ignore the dictatorship of Hitler, and how it legitimized the spread of anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, and anti-black prejudices in America. Thus, he requested that Owens "strike a blow at intolerance " by not participating in the Olympics, a decision he assured him would be applauded by people in all parts of the world. White's intentions were well thought out, but the psychological and emotional needs of black people --as well as those of Owens --were dependent on the opportunity of a black man to destroy and ridicule theories of Aryan supremacy, not unique to Germany, on a world stage. History proved Owens decision to be correct.

From the 1930's through the mid-1950's, three black athletes towered above all others: Owens, Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson. Each endorsed political candidates whom they felt would best advance the interests of their race. Owens endorsed Alf Landon, the Republican candidate for president in 1936, shortly after returning home from Berlin with four gold medals. At a rally in Ohio, an upset Owens chafed over not being congratulated for his medals by Franklin Roosevelt. "Hitler didn't snub me - it was our president who snubbed me," he said. "The President didn't even send me a telegram." When Owens made that statement he had no college degree, no employment, no endorsements, no sports contract, no money and he was vulnerable to repercussions. But what he did have was the courage to publicly criticize the President of the United States. Joe Louis campaigned for Republican presidential candidates Wendell Wilkie in 1940 and Thomas Dewey in 1944. Louis’ bi-partisan fan base defied race and politics, bolstered when he enlisted in the U.S. military during World War ll. His situation was unique. Boxing is not a team sport. While his owner, manager and trainer were black, they worked diligently to cultivate good will with whites. He never spoke out on controversial issues, and a wholesome family image was fabricated for the press. Neither Owens or Louis spoke out on the most important issues of their day - lynchings, disfranchisement, segregation, the Scottsboro Boys, and discrimination in employment, housing, and the U.S. military. However, they were never criticized for not doing so, because the value of their athletic success uplifted black spirits and moral.

Jackie Robinson was of another breed. He resisted segregation and discrimination throughout his life, only agreeing to change his behavior and control his temperament to promote the integration of baseball. And it was that compromise that caused him his most frustration. The exploitation of Robinson by political operatives who essentially forced him to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) of Congress in 1949 is singularly tragic. The purpose was to denounce Paul Robeson who earlier had been subpoenaed by the HUAC to answer questions about his political affiliations and relationship with Russia. It was the early days of the Cold War. Robeson, who ironically was in the vortex of the campaign to integrate baseball, refused to answer any questions, electing instead to lecture the HUAC on racism in America. Robinson was the designated character assassin, and in remarks prepared with the assistance of Branch Rickey, the baseball official who led the integration of major league baseball, he gave testimony eviscerating Robeson. According to Robinson, Robeson's "silly" views were unrepresentative of black thought. It damaged Robeson, and the black press and many black leaders sided with Robinson. In his speech, it is interesting to note that Robinson also said that racial discrimination was not " a creation of communist imagination" which caused Southerners on the HUAC to recoil, but it was not the statement that reporters and politicians wanted or used. The damage had been inflicted, and Robeson's concert career and role as a race leader began a downward spiral.

This was the first time that a black athlete had ever been used to criticize a black leader, and it underscored a reality: black athletes had significantly more influence and visibility than other blacks, which could lend itself to political manipulation. In other words, the sword cuts both ways. For the remainder of his life Robinson regretted his rebuttal of Robeson, and after baseball he went on to become a fierce and independent -minded social and political activist. In 1960, he endorsed Richard Nixon's bid for the presidency and in 1964 he actively campaigned for Nelson Rockefeller in his bid for the presidency. But he never completely escaped the testimony against Robeson, and when he spoke negatively about the nation of Islam in 1964, Malcolm X reminded the new generation that Robinson had once been used, and was on the wrong side of history when he testified against Robeson.

At the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, one of the speakers endorsing Hillary Clinton was Kareem Abdul - Jabbar. As he approached the podium, the delegates cheered loudly. "Hello," he greeted, "my name is Michael Jordan. No. I am Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Donald Trump would not know the difference." The delegates laughed loudly given the fact that Jabbar and Jordan do not physically resemble each other. But for those who have closely followed both of these athletes for many decades, there was more to the humor than meets the eye, and more differences in the two men than their physical dimensions. Jabbar has spoken out on every major social issue of his time, by comparison, Jordan, who did not hold his tongue literally or figuratively on the court, either avoided or said nothing on critical issues affecting blacks. Race seemed to have been a burden. When Harvey Gantt, a black mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina ran for the U.S. Senate in 1990 against the hate-filled Negrophobe Jesse Helms, he sought the endorsement of Jordan, a native son with enormous popularity and stature as a public personality. After a long career of race baiting, Helms upped the ante, running a shocking television campaign ad known as " Hands." In it a pair of white gloves appeared on the screen with a voiceover. "You wanted this job, but because of a law they had to give it to a minority." Blacks were outraged, and it that context the request of Gantt seemed logical and politically smart to everyone other than Jordan who refused Gantt's overtures, stating infamously that Republicans also wear sneakers. Blacks were disappointed with Jordan's invoking his Nike shoe contract, the most lucrative financial deal of any athlete ever. It did not seem to matter to Jordan that black people in North Carolina and elsewhere also wore sneakers. The reality was that an endorsement of Gantt would not have had any measurable impact on world-wide shoe sales, but Jordan did not want the political identity, or was it the black identity. By 2000, he clearly had no apprehension about politics, since he endorsed former NBA player Bill Bradley in the Democratic primary for President of the United States, and Republicans were still wearing his sneakers.

For the next 14 years, Jordan's lips were sealed on matters of social protest and race causes, except to agree with the world that Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was over the top with his recorded cruel and casual racist remarks about blacks, some directed specifically towards Magic Johnson, who has invested more of his resources in the black community than any athlete in history. Strategically issuing a statement after President Obama, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, and a series of other NBA superstars had done so, Jordan said he was "obviously disgusted that a fellow team owner could hold such offensive views." Two years later as he was anticipating hosting the 2017 NBA All-Star game scheduled for Charlotte, the NBA changed sites because of " The Bathroom Bill” -- a North Carolina law that discriminates against the LGBT community. A bitter pill for Jordan to swallow, because he had worked hard to persuade North Carolina lawmakers to repeal the bill, but probably not because the LGBT community also wears sneakers, but change was on the way.

During the summer of 2016, a chain of circumstances may have affected Jordan, by challenging his competitive instincts to preserve his legacy. Greatness in sports always reduces itself to comparisons, and some events during that span forced black athletes and others to reexamine and redefine its applicability to sports. First Ali died, and the media was saturated with retrospectives on his life, enough to give the nation reason to pause. His life demonstrated the influence athletes have on the world outside of sports. In death, he raised the bar for athletic greatness. The O.J. Simpson documentary was broadcast for a week, illustrating the complete and total absence of race, social consciousness, or a moral compass in one of the most gifted black athletes of all time. LeBron James, the most courageous of modern elite athletes, not only won another NBA title but voiced his support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Anthony, James, Wade and Paul, encouraged athletes to come out of the "silent closet" in their speech at the ESPY Awards. Jabbar spoke at the Democratic National Convention. The NBA All-Star game was removed from Charlotte. The confluence of those events may have been coincidental but, in each, a between -the- lines conversation about Michael Jordan could be found. He may have sensed late is better than never, or he may have had an epiphany on race and social responsibility, or he began to understand that his legacy will ultimately be determined by more than championship rings. It really does not matter why he changed, but he did. Shortly after all of these events, he donated $1 million to the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, and was careful to hedge that contribution with a gift of $1 million to the International Association's Chief of Police's Institute for Community -Police Relations, saying that he was appalled by the spate of police killings of blacks and the targeted killing of police officers. One week later, Jordan double downed with his newly found race consciousness, giving $5 million dollars to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where a section of the museum dealing with sports will be named in his honor. None of that will erase the memory and history of his past transgressions, and none of that will make him a Muhammad Ali, but it will go a long way towards sustaining a legacy that cannot avoid being judged by comparison with the greats.

Arthur Ashe, too, came late to social causes, but when he came he came strong. While a student at UCLA, he was already a world class tennis player, but maintained a quiet and sober demeanor that became his trademark both on and off the court. Though the racism he experienced being raised in the segregated South, and in the white country club world of tennis was profound, he never once during the turbulent period of the turbulent 60's uttered a public statement on urban unrest, black protest, or civil rights. But he was a hero because his serves and back hand strokes in the white world of tennis, were as important to black dignity as were the student sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, and voter registration campaigns in the South and elsewhere. This translation of athletic performance to social protest also applies to elite black athletes of earlier eras, who were cautioned to avoid serious discussions on race issues, such as Willie Mays, Sugar Ray Robinson, Satchel Paige, Ernie Banks, Marion Motley, Goose Tatum, Althea Gibson, and Roy Campanella, whose on field performances generated race pride, simply because they excelled when competing on an even playing field with whites, something uniformly denied in larger society.

But by the mid-60's things had changed. Ashe was a college student during the Black Power movement --when being black and proud was both a mood and a badge of honor - and many questioned why he was not more outspoken on race. " I was geographically isolated at UCLA," he explained in his autobiography, Out of Bounds. "There were not too many blacks that lived in that section of Los Angeles, so my life centered around life at UCLA." The "tall" problem with that explanation is that Lew Alcindor who matriculated at the same school during the same period found no problems with the geographical isolation of the campus from blacks. A more plausible explanation is that Ashe and Alcindor had completely different personalities. Alcindor liked jazz music, while Ashe lamented how sorry he felt for Elvis Presley when he died, and how he was so emotionally distraught over the assassination of John Lennon that he was moved to attend a ten- minute vigil in Central Park. Strange he never mentioned his reactions to the untimely tragic deaths of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, two cultural icons unanimously adulated by blacks in the 60's. To be certain, cultural preferences should be respected for all individuals, but they assist in understanding personal behavior.

Later, however, the erudite Ashe more than redeemed himself with broad involvement and deep commitment for progressive social causes, including crusading against the regime of South African apartheid, the treatment of Haitian refugees, and fund raising for the United Negro College Fund. He was also the first elite black athlete to calibrate the scales between athletics and academics. Knowing that he was a role model and the impact black athletes have as role models on black youth, he spoke widely and wrote editorials cautioning black youth against relying too heavily on black athletes as role models at the exclusion of other black professionals, while counseling parents that sending their children to libraries would reap better dividends than sending them to the fields of athletic competition.

It is exceedingly difficult to gauge the impact of the2016 summer of change without the benefit of time and perspective. It is too soon. However, the cumulative effect of the events of the summer, and the increasing social activism of black athletes may accelerate a trend that has been long in the making and cannot be reversed. Certainly, among all of the protests during the summer of 2016, none was as profound as that of San Francisco 49ers' black quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, which has been more reminiscent of Tommie Smith and John Carlos than any other. History has repeated itself, because someone remembered. Before a pre-season game in late August, he sat on the team's bench while the National Anthem was being played. " 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 explained without pulling punches. "To me this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies on the street, and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder." On his Twitter account, Kaepernick had been outspoken on civil rights issues and Black Lives Matter, but his "sit-down" demonstration shook the foundation of the longest and most revered pre-game ritual of profession sports, whose origins are to be found in the patriotism of World War II. As a sign of the changing times - unlike the Smith and Carlos who were banned forever from Olympic competition --the 49ers front office rushed a statement saying that players are " encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the National Anthem." Actually, with the player's union and the U.S. Constitution, they had no immediate options. Twenty years earlier, the NBA's response was not as tolerant when Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf of the Denver Rockets caused a furor when he refused to stand during the playing of the National Anthem. Abdul-Rauf argued that the tyranny and oppression symbolized by the flag conflicted with his Islamic faith. Fortunately, a compromise was reached with the league whereby he would stand while the anthem was being played, but was allowed to bow his head downward with his eyes closed. He did that for the remainder of his career.

Jackie Robinson always stood in tribute to the national anthem throughout his major league career, but late in his life he soured on the ritual, speaking about it in his 1972 autobiography, I Never Had It Made. Reflecting back to opening day of the World Series of 1947, the year he broke baseball's color-line, which accelerated the cracking of color-lines in all other areas of American life, he wrote: "There I was, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. ... The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious day for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands.... As I write this 20 years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, and at my birth in 1919. I know I never had it made." In 2016, the saga continues and the lessons of the past are prologue to the present. "The past," as William Faulkner once said, "is never dead. It's not even past."

Undoubtedly, the "season of change" has contributed to a climate where there is more tolerance and patience for protests from black athletes, though there is no assurance that the current policy of the NFL can be sustained without modifications. Should Kaepernick's demonstration become contagious among black athletes - and it could - it could become a public relations nightmare for professional sports. No one knows more than the owners of professional sports teams, the member schools of the NCAA, and the media, that black athletes matter. The opening day of the 2016 NFL season is on 9/11, and the optics of Kaepernick sitting down --and perhaps others - is not what it wants. Regardless of the outcome, one thing is for sure, Carmelo Anthony may be correct when he warned, "the old days are long gone."

Stay tuned. Dr. Al-Tony Gilmore, PhD. is a noted historian of American social history, and the author of several books. He is Historian Emeritus of the National Education Association, and most recently served as a Visiting Scholar in the Estelle and Melvin Gelman Research Center of The George Washington University. Contact Dr. Gilmore.




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