For over a decade, I’ve written a column in December looking back at the year in sports and politics. From most of these annual assessments, the stories were comprised of nuggets overlooked by the mainstream sports media, things that generally did not make a blip outside a small circle of those interested in this intersection of sports and politics. The number of people interested that NBA bust Adam Morrison was a Ralph Nader supporter or whether an Egyptian soccer player was asking people to “sympathize with Gaza ”on the pitch, was not exactly large. Even athletes who made statements against war during the Bush years or spoke out for those left behind after Hurricane Katrina were not discussed with breathless analysis. They were an afterthought.
Then, over the last several years, the dream deferred of athletes’ being denied the ability to speak their minds exploded. Where this fuse was lit can be subject to debate, but I think the flame arose when the Miami Heat, led by stars Lebron James and Dwyane Wade, used social media and posed with their hoods on in 2012 to spread solidarity with the family of the murdered Trayvon Martin. Then, as black—and some white—athletes started to leverage their platforms to speak about those losing their lives at the hands of police, this wildfire intensified. Finally, in 2016, as Colin Kaepernick took a stand by taking that knee, the sports world firmly became a public square of political dissent.
Here’s what I wrote a year ago:
It is widely accepted that 2016 has been the most vile year in memory—a train wreck contained inside the world’s biggest dumpster fire. But amid the swirl of venom, political excrement, and personal tears, it is worth savoring the fact that, in the world of sports, tragedy has not been the defining characteristic. On the field, the sports world has been an oasis of uplifting escape. And off the field, allegedly apolitical players have charted a high-profile path of resistance that our normal political channels have failed miserably to articulate.
Now, in 2017, we have reached another place. The fight has spread beyond racial issues, as the #MeToo movement has become a part of the sports rhetoric of resistance. But this has also been the year of the backlash: open, ugly racism aimed at athletes who recognize that, in historical moments such as this one, they needed to do more than just shut up and play.
In comparing activist athletes from the past to the present, I’ve always found useful the line from Mark Twain that “History doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme.” This is a helpful framework in comparing the experiences of Muhammad Ali to Kaepernick or the trials of Jackie Robinson getting shunned in the Brooklyn Dodgers locker room to what LGBTQ athletes face today. It allows us to examine the fight for equal pay in tennis led 50 years ago by Billie Jean King and compare it to the efforts of Venus Williams. Their experiences and circumstances are extremely different, but there are common points of struggle, regardless of their era. In a word, rhyming.