Ballin’ and Fightin’ Back: Sport and Possibilities for Social Change


The Kenosha police’s seven bullets in the back of Jacob Blake were yet another very clear sign of anti-Black racism and police brutality.  The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) led the move to boycott games, protest, and stand in solidarity for Jacob Blake as well as for Breonna Taylor and many other African Americans who have been the victims of police anti-Black Racism.  The WNBA led the movement among professional sporting leagues for Black Lives Matter.  On August 20, 2020, the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Milwaukee Bucks boycotted their playoff game against the Orlando Magic, even though they held a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.    

Soon, other NBA playoff teams followed suit and joined the strike, along with various Major League Soccer teams and Major League Baseball teams.  This was unprecedented in the history of professional sports in the United States.  Resonating and ringing through the courts, fields, and locker rooms were calls for deliberate and structural change to policing in particular and to the United States racist infrastructure in general.    

The protests and demands for change on the streets were seeping into all sports realms, not just the professional realm.  Collegiate athletes joined the protests and organized locally on their campuses with the hopes of a better tomorrow.  In many ways, these athletes are practicing Black Feminism’s commitment to expansive justice and world-making.  However, what we see on the amateur and professional realms with regard to athlete activism is not new in the United States.  With the long history of the Civil Rights movement, sport and education have been key realms of activism.  In many ways, the goals of the Civil Rights movement were realized in sport before it was achieved in other aspects of U.S. society.  Professional basketball and professional baseball were integrated in 1950 and 1947 before the major victories in the 1950s and 1960s in the larger polity.  For example, African American Jackie Robinson’s integration of professional baseball in 1947, Japanese American Wataru Misaka’s entry onto the New York Knicks in 1947, African Americans Earl Lloyd and Nate Clifton’s integration of professional basketball in 1950, and Althea Gibson’s dominance in tennis and golf in the 1950s preceded the integration of the nation.  Sports in the United States have been both distinct from the ebbs and flows of larger society and yet reflective and part of U.S. society—this is both sport’s leverage and its limitation.

One of these quintessential examples of athletes protesting for racial justice and human rights took place during the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games.  Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two African American collegiate track stars who ran for the United States, raised their fists in support of Black rights and the Olympic Project for Human Rights.  Yet, unlike the present-day NBA players who can harness corporate power and great wealth, Smith and Carlos were ostracized by the International Olympic Committee and the United States Olympic Committee.  Their livelihoods, along with that of Australian silver-medalist sprinter Peter Norman who stood in support with them, were jeopardized as a result of their activism, even though their actions engendered incredible support within the Civil Rights Movement locally and freedom struggles globally. 

Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’s call for greater human rights, banning the participation of apartheid nations participating in the 1968 Olympics, and demands for racial justice must be understood within the larger socio-historical and geopolitical context.  As this took place at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the U.S.S.R., the United States had to manage a positive international portrayal of themselves in opposition to the Soviets that was compromised by the Smith’s and Carlos’s raised fists for greater racial equality.  Feeling international pressure from the global community who criticized U.S. racism along with domestic pressure from the Civil Rights Movement, the United States had to carefully manage the political resistance alongside the political demands of the strong conservative and white supremacist political actors who wanted to maintain the current system of racial governance.   The United States’ government and Olympic Committee responded by harnessing the power and fame of African American Olympic great Jesse Owens to speak on behalf of the African American community in hopes of diluting the demands of Smith, Carlos, and other Olympic athletes. 

By stigmatizing Smith and Carlos and treating them like pariahs by throwing them out of the Olympic village and marginalizing them in the mainstream media, we see how dissent is channeled and dissipated through moderate intermediaries like Owens rather than Smith and Carlos.  We also see this take place at the height of the Civil Rights Movement where the moderate elements were absorbed instead of the radical demands by SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee [rest in peace elder John Lewis]) or the Black Panthers.  By acknowledging the demands of moderate actors, the country can continue to perpetuate the status-quo and deny the calls for truly significant structural change. 

Thus, with the present-day protests, what are ways that protest in the NBA and WNBA can be co-opted into conservative solutions rather than radical change? The athletes must be careful not to have their protests and demands for change be absorbed by the state and its corporate allies.  During the height of the NBA protest, the athletes turned to former President Barack Obama for advice and suggestions.  Obama asked that they continue to have dialogue but get back to work.  Although helpful advice in some forms, we must not forget that it does not acknowledge how protest and refusals, such as the Birmingham bus boycotts, have the ability to name honestly the system of racial stratification while opening up for demands for structural change both in the nation and in the NBA and WNBA. 

Why Obama? Deporter-in-chief.  Drone warfare-in-chief.  The choice of Obama secures a conversation with major corporate actors (such as the NBA) and the dominant political institutions.  An absence looms large.  The protests are in the streets.  The demands and calls for expansive justice, defunding of the police, ending police brutality, and tackling anti-Black racism were coming from our streets and from our communities.  They were not coming from our institutional and political elites.  Why did the NBA players and the NBA not discuss strategy and acknowledge the expertise of Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors? Or, why not bring in Colin Kaepernick who has played a pivotal role on and off the field for Black Lives Matter? Why not turn to the WNBA players to strategize and lead? The choice of Obama, just like the choice of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to run on the Democratic Presidential ticket for the 2020 elections, illustrates how treacherous the realm of activism is.  That is, one can be co-opted and absorbed at the moment of resistance to white supremacy.   

The protest on the courts and the protests in the streets must be simultaneous, coordinated, collaborative, and cannot be made through the agents of either corporate entities or through the agents of the nation-state.  Rather, the change that will free us all is uncomfortable, difficult, full, and necessary. Thus, NBA players and WNBA players must continue to center their voices while in conversation with activists on the ground in order to make sure that solutions are not ones made for the sake of the company (NBA) or a mainstream political party.  By working with activists and organizations across the progressive realm, the call for Black Lives Matter would simultaneously demand pay equity for the WNBA and women’s professional and national sports, financially compensate college athletes who are the unpaid, highly exploited labor for historically white universities, name the transphobic violence impacting trans men and trans women of color, abolish the prison-industrial complex, destroy the school-to-prison pipeline for poor communities of color, and end the dehumanization of migrant communities on our southern border.  Such expansive calls for justice must be informed by history and radical visions for the future. 

As education and a holistic understanding of U.S. History has informed athlete protests, it is necessary to push for change not only in sporting arenas but also in educational institutions.  Ethnic Studies offers the historical accuracy and contemporary analysis needed to disrupt present systems of racist power.  Having a seat at the table of white supremacy and anti-Black governance is not enough.  The NBA and WNBA players must use their voices and coalition building possibilities to demand expansive justice.  Being included in the political system is not enough.  That is not the end goal that frees us all and it does not disrupt the structures of anti-Black racism and police brutality.  As the Black Feminist and poet Audre Lorde warns us about how our forms of resistance must be carefully selected so that we do not co-opt power instead of challenging power, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” Changing the system is the end goal.  Players got to change the game in order to have an equitable playing field. 

Stanley Thangaraj is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the City College of New York, a former high school and college coach, and the author of Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (New York University Press, 2015).

Suggested Readings:

  • Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow. New York: New Press.
  • Arnaldo Jr., Constancio R. 2019. ‘Undisputed’ racialized masculinities: boxing fandom, identity, and the cultural politics of masculinity.  Identities 3: 1-20.
  • Burdsey, Daniel. 2009. British Asians and Football. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Carrington, Ben. 2010. Race, Sport and Politics. London: Sage.
  • Davis, Angela. 1990. Women, Culture, and Politics. New York: Vintage.
  •  Edwards, Harry. 1969. The Revolt of the Black Athlete. New York: The Free Press.
  • Gilmore, Ruthie Wilson. 2009. Golden Gulag. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Hartmann, Douglas. 2004. Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Kapadia, Ronak. 2019. Insurgent Aesthetics. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider. Berkeley: Crossing Press.
  • Milner, Rich. 2020. Start where you are but don’t stay there: Understanding diversity, opportunity gaps, and teaching in today’s classrooms. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.
  • Nash, Jennifer. 2018. Black Feminism Reimagined. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Rand, Erica. 2012. Red Nails, Black Skates. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Rios, Victor. 2011. Punished. New York: New York University Press.
  • Willms, Nicole. 2017. When Women Rule the Court. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.