The St. Louis Rams, Derrick Rose, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, the women’s hoops teams at Notre Dame and Berkeley… none of these folks can say that they were the first athlete to bring the #BlackLivesMatter movement into the world of sports. That was Knox College’s Ariyana Smith. On Saturday, November 29, before a game against Fontbonne University in Clayton, Missouri, Ms. Smith made the now iconic “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture during the national anthem before walking toward the American flag. She then went prone on the floor for four and a half minutes, preventing the game from getting under way. It was four and a half minutes because Ferguson’s Michael Brown lay in the street for four and a half hours after being killed. Since that time, Ms. Smith has taken a crash course in the blessing and burden of what it means to be an “activist athlete.” I was able to speak to Smith. Her experience is well worth reading and sharing by both activists and athletes alike.
Dave Zirin: At what point did you make the decision that an on-court display of activism was something you were going to do in Clayton, Missouri?
Ariyana Smith: Essentially, about a week and a half before our game, the athletic director called us into a meeting and said, “Hey, your safety is all of our concern, and we’re looking to see if we’re going to reschedule the Fontbonne game at Knox, or whether we’ll play at a neutral site so, we’ll get back to you all.” I knew we were playing in Missouri, but now I wondered: How far is Fotnbonne University from Ferguson? It turns out Clayton is actually in St. Louis, only about twenty minutes away from Ferguson. I assumed we’re going to have a further conversation about what’s going on, the implications of it, the gravity of what this means. There was never that conversation. We were never told we were going to be that close to Ferguson. We were never told that, “Hey, the National Guard has been deployed here within the past week.” We were never even given that information.
So I just waited. I had already been following the protests. I had been following the people on the ground, and I had been following the live stream and I was looking at the photos. And when I heard that [a friend named] Patrick didn’t stand during the national anthem during our last game, I felt guilty. Because while I was standing during the national anthem, it felt wrong and I knew that it felt wrong to stand and salute. So right then I said, “This is what I can do. This is something I can do. You know, it’s not much, but I can make a gesture.” At same time, I was still waiting to hear back from the athletics department to see if we were even going to be in Missouri. It comes to Saturday and again, nothing was said. So I had to do something. We arrived in Clayton. We went onto the court. I took off my warm-up jersey. I raised my hand in the air, knelt at the flag and on the last line of the national anthem I collapsed to the ground, and I lay there for four and a half minutes. While I lay there the trainer came over and tried to shake me and tried to get me to stand up. They were asking me if I was OK. My coach walked over and all she said to me was, “Ariyana, you need to move. The ref won’t start the game until you move.” After four and a half minutes, I stood and raised the black power salute. I held that for thirty seconds and continued to walk out of the gym with my fist still raised.