With the immense popularity of professional sports today, it is no surprise that some athletes use their platform to make statements regarding social and political issues. These statements are oftentimes the issues that impact these athletes the most, from civil rights to political causes, and much more. Athletes are hoping to mitigate problems, and with their high-profile status, they can bring much attention to many issues. Two very similar, notable issues involving 1968 Olympic medal winners and the very recent incident involving St. Louis Rams football players are classic examples of players protesting using the beliefs taught by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s career and activism are very important in our nation’s history. He was a staunch supporter of minority rights and was frequently willing to be punished for protesting laws he felt to be unjust. In his 1963 letter written while being held in a Birmingham, Alabama jail, he detailed why he was supporting these causes. He describes what he believes to be just and unjust laws, as well as why it is important to fight against the unjust laws. In his eyes, all people should be treated equally by the State and the issues he fought against prevented this from happening. Not fearing any repercussions, King disobeyed governmental mandates against protesting, picketing, and demonstrating. This resulted in his arrest and subsequent letter advocating for further peaceful demonstrations against unjust issues. In the mold of what Dr. King practiced and advocated for, two groups of athletes from very different time periods staged similar peaceful protests in support of minority rights.
In the 1968 Olympics, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos staged one of the most famous protests in support of minority rights by athletes ever. After Smith won gold and Carlos won bronze, the two African-American runners each stood on the podium with their head bowed and one black-gloved fist in the air. This continued during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner until the end of the medal ceremony when the crowd heavily booed the two athletes. These actions by the runners directly follow the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In his letter, he advocated for peaceful protesting of unjust laws, and the runners felt that the rights for African-Americans were lacking. According to the runners, they wanted to represent black unity and power, and they knew their actions could face consequences. The runners embodied Dr. King’s teachings again when they continued with their actions knowing they would face severe backlash. Just as Dr. King was jailed, Smith and Carlos were banned from competition and their medals were stripped. Even though they knew the consequences their actions could bring, they continued with their gesture peacefully because they felt passionately about the issue, just as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had advocated. Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s actions would return to prominence with a protest many years later by NFL players.
Before an NFL game 46 years after Tommie Smith and John Carlos demonstrated at the Olympic games, a group of St. Louis Rams staged a very similar protest that embodied Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings, too. After the very controversial shooting of Ferguson, Missouri teenager Michael Brown by a police officer after a brief encounter between the two, national outrage was sparked regarding the shooting of an unarmed black teenager. Some witnesses have claimed, though it has never been proven with physical evidence, that during the confrontation, Brown raised his hands in the air to surrender. This prompted the use of the phrase “Hands up, don’t shoot” which because a national rallying cry. Riots and protests broke out in the wake of the shooting, many of which turned violent, something Dr. King would have surely condemned. Several St. Louis Rams players wanted to voice their opinion, so they did so in a way that followed Dr. King’s teachings. While many people were being violent, these players ran onto the field with their hands raised in the air. This was a demonstration by the players aimed at improving the treatment of blacks by police and government. Just as Dr. King advocated, they felt the treatment was unjust, so they peacefully protested by performing their gesture. Just like Dr. King described, the knowledge of consequences was also present in this situation. Playing in a league that will fine you for the height of your socks, you must know that any controversial action will bring swift consequences, which could come very soon for the players. In addition to fines, the actions have been condemned by numerous organizations; similar to when Dr. King was criticized for his demonstrations. Just as Dr. King advocated in his letter from jail, the players found an issue the felt to be unjust, knew the possible consequences of action, and peacefully acted upon the very controversial shooting.
Although the demonstrations by the Olympic runners and football players were separated by many years, they share many similarities. Recently, John Carlos spoke out in support of the Rams players. Both groups identified issues they felt to be unjust or racist and decided to use their large platform as athletes to peacefully protest these issues while knowing the possible ramifications of their actions. All of these similarities between both protests are very prominent ideals outlined by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his 1963 letter written from inside the Birmingham jail.