Nearly a month into the national anthem protests that continue to spring up across our sports landscape, it’s natural to wonder how we’ll someday measure the success or failure of what Colin Kaepernick started.
Is the ensuing national conversation about social inequality and violence in our cities a victory in itself? There’s Kaepernick’s pledge of $1 million for groups fighting for civil rights in the Bay Area, a donation the San Francisco 49ers have vowed to match. That means something, for sure.
But what will history say? There’s no way to know if a few athletes taking a knee or raising a fist are going to save any lives in a future version of this country. We do know that the tragic events of the past few days in Tulsa and Charlotte only add to that uncertainty.
But we can wonder.
Richard Sherman: ‘People are still missing the point’ on police brutality, protests.
Billie Jean King comes from a different era of social activism. Sharing a generation with the likes of Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, she fought for women’s rights in sports at a time when there basically were no women’s rights in sports, and precious few in society at large.
King has been watching Kaepernick, U.S. Soccer star Megan Rapinoe and others from afar, and while she said she personally stands at attention with her hand over her heart for the national anthem, she sees something familiar in what they are doing.
“I’m sure 20 years from now, we’ll look back like we did with Tommie Smith and John Carlos and probably take our hats off to them for making us stay on course and trying to figure this out together,” King said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon.
“The most important thing is, let’s concentrate on why Kaepernick did this, why he started it, and why others have joined in. It’s very important to take a couple of steps back and try to understand each person and what they’re saying. The NFL has more exposure than anything else so this is definitely his platform. He’s not being aggressive. He’s being peaceful. You don’t have to agree with his actions to have a good conversation about it.”.
There are no quick fixes in this conversation, to be sure, but that hasn’t always been the case when real life crash lands into the world of sports. In fact, instant gratification occurred on two fronts over the past couple of years.
Cam Newton: Police brutality comments are ‘lose-lose’ for me.
In the spring of 2014, the strong voices of NBA players led to the swift banishment of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling after racist comments he made became public. In the fall of 2015, when University of Missouri football players said they would boycott football-related activities until the university system president resigned, their coach threw his support behind the players and the president immediately left.
“This is the next generation,” King said. “It’s like a relay race in sports, with the previous generation passing the baton to the next generation, whether it’s about civil rights or women’s rights or the social justice movement. That’s the picture I see. We’re talking about it, aren’t we? Now the most important thing is, are we going to do something about it?”.
It’s possible that social activism in sports actually skipped a generation between King and her cohorts and Kaepernick and his. Sandwiched between were Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, who saw sports as a vehicle for winning titles and making money, not for speaking out about anything remotely controversial.
How long these current protests last will in large part determine their impact. Do they become so commonplace that we start to ignore them? Or does this unique brand of activism evolve into something bigger?
In little more than a month, the new NBA season begins. High school and college basketball start soon, too. From one season to the next, it’s not hard to imagine anthem protests popping up anew in our college towns and big cities.
If that happens — when that happens — perhaps something memorable will follow.
Christine Brennan co-authored Billie Jean King’s “Pressure is a Privilege,” which was published in 2008.