Gerald Ford protests playing in segregated game
Before presidency was on his mind, a young Ford playing football at Michigan threatened to quit the team and refused to play in a game against Georgia Tech, because the Yellow Jackets demanded an African American athlete, Willis Ward, not be permitted to make the trip. Ford only ended up playing after Ward asked him to.
Wilma Rudolph makes history at the 1960 Olympic Games
After making history as the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics, Rudolph refuses to attend any segregated celebratory events, making her homecoming parade the first integrated event in her hometown of Clarksville, Tenn. In 1963, Rudolph joins other Clarksville citizens in an attempt to integrate a local Shoney’s restaurant. Despite being a hometown and national hero, she’s denied entry because she is Black.
Bill Russell hosts first integrated basketball camp in Mississippi
Medgar Evers, the first state field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi and a prominent civil rights activist that worked to enforce Brown v. Board of Education and investigated the murder of Emmett Till, is assassinated in his driveway on June 12, 1963. Following Evers’ murder by a Klansman — who wouldn’t be convicted of the murder until 31 years later — NBA star Russell travels to Mississippi on the invitation of Evers’ brother, Charles, to host an integrated basketball camp in segregated Mississippi. In a 2011 interview, Charles Evers recalls how members of the Ku Klux Klan stood across the street from the playground in efforts to intimidate Russell and organizers. The night before the camp, Charles, rifle in hand, was standing guard in Russell’s hotel room as there were several threats of violence.
AFL All Star Game is moved from New Orleans to Houston.
After African American AFL players were confronted with discriminatory treatment on their arrival to New Orleans for the AFL All Star game, players refuses to play the game in city and it was ultimately moved to Houston, Texas.
Sociologist Harry Edwards creates the Olympic Project for Human Rights to protest against racial segregation in the United States and worldwide
In October 1967, San Jose State University sociologist Harry Edwards founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights to protest racism and racial segregation in the U.S. and beyond. Edwards focused on recruiting athletes participating in the 1968 Olympics to engage in activism there, such as Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
Kathrine Switzer runs the Boston Marathon
In 1967, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a numbered entrant. During her run, race official Jock Semple attempted to physically pull her from the event, but she was protected by her boyfriend and fellow runner, Thomas Miller, allowing her to finish the race. Women were not officially permitted to run the Boston Marathon until 1972. Switzer would later say: “I knew if I quit, nobody would ever believe that women had the capability to run 26-plus miles. If I quit, everybody would say it was a publicity stunt. If I quit, it would set women’s sports back, way back, instead of forward. If I quit, I’d never run Boston. If I quit, Jock Semple and all those like him would win.”
Roberto Clemente halts opening day
The Pittsburgh Pirates were scheduled to play the Houston Astros on April 8, 1968, four days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and just one day before his burial. Out of respect, Roberto Clemente refused to play and his teammates also joined in their support to postpone opening day. While initially leaving the decision to each club, MLB Commissioner William Eckert followed suit and postponed all games until April 10th, the day after Dr. King’s burial.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar boycotts the 1968 Summer Olympics over unequal treatment of African-Americans
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar boycotted the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics as a way of protesting the inequalities faced by African-Americans.
The Detroit Tigers win the World Series a year after the Detroit Uprising
The city of Detroit celebrates the Tigers winning the world series a year after the 12th Street Uprising. On the night the uprising began Detroit Tiger Willie Horton took to the streets in his Tigers uniform to encourage peace.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos stand for human rights at the 1968 Olympics
Drawing inspiration from sociologist Harry Edwards, American track & field athletes Carlos and Smith after medaling in the 200-meter dash at the Mexico City Olympics stand atop the podium during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” with bowed heads and their fists in the air, each wearing a black glove. The iconic protest, Smith says, is a “… cry for freedom and for human rights. We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.” The International Olympic Committee bans Carlos and Smith from the Olympic Village for their political message and threatens to ban the entire USA Track & Field team after the US Olympic Committee refuses to send Carlos and Smith home. Eventually, the IOC does expel them from the Mexico City Olympics, and the two return to the United States where they are ostracized from Olympic competition for the next 30 years. The silver medalist, Australian Peter Norman, is the one who gives Carlos and Smith the idea to each wear a glove. Norman, who like Carlos and Smith wears a “Olympic Project for Human Rights” badge on the medal stand, tells them to each wear a single glove after Carlos forgets his at the Olympic Village as an alternative. Norman himself uses his badge as a form of protest for the racist “White Australia” policies at the time. His form of allyship effectively ends his career as he is blackballed from competing for Australia ever again despite running Olympic qualifying times and “suffered to the day he died,” Norman’s son later says.
Black 14 at the University of Wyoming
During the Wyoming Cowboys season in mid-October, head coach Lloyd Eaton dismisses 14 Black players from the team after they ask to wear black armbands during the upcoming home game against BYU. In their game against each other the year prior, BYU players taunted Black players on Wyoming with racial epithets and spit on them. A week before the 1969 game, the school’s campus activist group the Black Student Alliance asks the Wyoming football team’s Black members to boycott the game to protest the racist events of the last game and the Mormon Church’s refusal to allow Black men in the priesthood. The day before the game, the players don black armbands on their clothes and go to Eaton’s office to discuss how they might show solidarity with the BSA protest. Upon seeing them with the armbands, Eaton immediately dismisses them from the team. According to Joe Williams, a team co-captain before he was suspended: “We wanted to see if we could wear black armbands in the game, or black socks, or black X’s on our helmets. And if he had said no we had already agreed that we would be willing to protest with nothing but our black skins.”
The WNBA launches
On April 24, 1996, women’s basketball announces “We Got Next” as the NBA Board of Governors approved the concept of a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) to begin play in June 1997. For the next 25 years, the WNBA and its athletes stand at the forefront of using their platforms as a place to promote social justice and racial equity. From Sheryl Swoopes advancing equality for people identifying as LGTBQ+ to Maya Moore leaving to prompt criminal justice reform to wearing shirts with bullet holes following the shooting of Jacob Blake, championing social justice has always been an integral part of the W. “We are a walking protest at all times as a W.N.B.A. athlete,” Mistie Bass told the New York Times in 2020.“If you think about it, we have so many different stigmas. We’re just constantly in the fight. I don’t think we have ever not been in a fight for equality, for justice.”
The Phoenix Suns wear Los Suns jersey as an act of solidarity with member of the Hispanic Community in Arizona following the passage of a state law allowing police officers to question individuals who appear to be undocumented.
Michigan State creates Diversity & Leadership Committee
Michigan State Athletics forms the Diversity & Leadership Committee, committed to informing student-athletes on social justices and equal opportunities.
Serena returns to Indian Wells after Williams sisters’ 13-year boycott
In 2015, Serena Williams returns to the Indian Wells Masters after the Williams sisters began boycotting the event in 2002 after racist abuse during the previous year’s tournament. Racial slurs, including the N-word, were directed at the sisters and their father following Venus’ withdrawal from her semifinal match vs. Serena because of an injury. The Williams sisters declared they would never return to the tournament. That 2001 incident represents only a fraction of the racist and sexist abuse, both unmistakable and coded, targeting the Williams sisters during their illustrious careers as two of the greatest athletes in sports history. (Serena’s 23 Grand Slam titles is most all time in the modern era.) Of that moment in 2001, Serena wrote it “haunted me for a long time. It haunted Venus and our family as well. But most of all, it angered and saddened my father. He dedicated his whole life to prepping us for this incredible journey, and there he had to sit and watch his daughter being taunted, sparking cold memories of his experiences growing up in the South.” But in 2015, Serena returns to the tournament, writing “Indian Wells was a pivotal moment of my story, and I am a part of the tournament’s story as well. Together we have a chance to write a different ending.”
Missouri football players boycott football-activities until school president resigns
Following several racially charged incidents at the University of Missouri, and the campus wide student protests criticizing university president Tim Wolfe’s handling of the matter, the football team pledged to boycott all football-related activities until Wolfe resigned or was fired. The school’s AD and its longtime coach Gary Pinkel stood with the boycotting players, matter-of-factly stating “The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players.” Days later, Wolfe stepped down.
St. Louis Rams players show solidarity in support of unarmed teen killed by a Ferguson police officer
Following the Aug. 2014 death of 18-year old Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer, St. Louis Rams players Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, Jared Cook, Chris Givens and Kenny Britt come out of the tunnel for team introductions with their hands raised in reportedly the same fashion as Brown just before he was killed. The pose is a symbol for nationwide protests as activists yelled “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
Four NBA stars attend ESPYS Awards, calling for social change
Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James take the stage together at the 2016 ESPY Awards in Los Angeles and urge their fellow athletes to be leaders for racial justice and social change.
Colin Kaepernick protests during the national anthem
In response to police shootings and brutality against people of color, including the 2015 killing of Mario Woods by San Francisco police, Kaepernick first takes a knee during the national anthem before a 2016 preseason game against the San Diego Chargers. He chooses to kneel instead of sit during the anthem to show respect for the military, after speaking with former NFL player and U.S. Army Green Beret Nate Boyer. His act of protest to bring attention to police brutality and oppression of people of color continues throughout the 2016 season. Of his protest, Kaepernick said “If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.” Kaepernick has not played in an NFL game since the end of the 2016 season.
USWNT player Megan Rapinoe makes an unprecedented statement on international stage
Showing solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, the U.S. Women’s National Team star kneels during the national anthem before an international match with Thailand in Columbus, Ohio. Research indicates no soccer player has ever knelt during the national anthem before an international competition anywhere, not just within the United States. Said Rapinoe: “It was a little nod to Kaepernick and everything that he’s standing for right now. I think it’s actually pretty disgusting the way he was treated and … [w]e need to have a more thoughtful, two-sided conversation about racial issues in this country. “Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties. It was something small that I could do and something that I plan to keep doing in the future and hopefully spark some meaningful conversation around it.”
Highly-decorated UC Davis gymnast Alexis Brown continues to use athletic platform to advocate for marginalized communities
Brown kneels during the national anthem at all of her gymnastics meets as a symbol of protest against police brutality and systemic racism. As an extension of her advocacy, Brown also creates the African Diaspora Student Athlete Support Group, recognizing the need for a space on campus that allows this support group to discuss ideas, issues, shared experiences and resources while also creating a larger sense of community on campus. Being so dominant in her sport, Brown says she understands the power of her platform.
New York Liberty Host First UNITY Game
In 2016, The Liberty’s UNITY social justice platform was initiated by players in response to the killings of unarmed Black men and women such as Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling and countless others. UNITY aims to ignite activism, educate fans, mobilize the local community, empower players and amplify marginalized voices through key partnerships, social media activations and events. In 2017, in partnership with RISE, the Liberty hosted their first UNITY game, which includes daylong programming such as a, including a town-hall style event, concourse activations, fan giveaways and community outreach.
Police, firefighters and military join Cleveland Browns for National Anthem
Browns players ran out of the tunnel prior to their game against the Steelers accompanied by police, firefighters and EMTs. They also stood together during the playing of the national anthem, joined by ownership and team executives, and the Browns ran a video with the theme of unity prior to the anthem.
USC, UCLA, RISE & Athlete Ally Host Athlete Activism and the Fight for Equality
Professional athletes spoke with 140 USC and UCLA student-athletes about advocating for racial and LGBTQ equality and mobilizing the athletic community across various social justice movements. The panelists discussed issues of race, gender and sexuality across sports and encouraged student-athletes to use their platforms for good. After the panels, the student-athletes joined the panelists in breakout groups to discuss ways to unite activist athletes and best practices for using their platforms to advocate for issues of social inequality.
America East Conference schools gather for first time to talk inclusion
In October 2019, America East gathered 70 student-athlete and staff representatives from all nine of its schools at the University of Vermont for its first Spread Respect Forum. Under the stewardship of Amy Huchthausen, AE’s first female and Asian-American commissioner, the conference aimed to lean on experts who could catalyze honest conversations that might lead to changes on each of the conference’s campuses. Attendees returned to their respective campuses with action plans and recommendations.
The NFL and Players Coalition launch Inspire Change initiative
The NFL and Players Coalition announce the launch of the Inspire Change initiative, which showcases the collaborative efforts of players, owners and the league to create positive change in communities across the country. Working together with the Players Coalition, NFL teams and the league office continue supporting programs and initiatives reducing barriers to opportunity, with a focus on three priority areas: education and economic advancement, police and community relations and criminal justice reform.
Athletes join protests, help lead movement for racial equity
Two months after Louisville police kill Breonna Taylor and less than a month after video showing Ahmaud Arbery’s murder is publicly released, multiple athletes at all levels of sport take part in nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd. Former Texans coach Bill O’Brien and star player J.J. Watt march in Houston, where Floyd was raised and is eventually laid to rest. The Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drives 15 hours to protest in Atlanta, where the Indiana Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon speaks about his grandfather marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. NBA stars Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Trae Young also join protests, and Michael Jordan’s Jordan brand announces a 10-year, $100 million donation to organizations fighting racism. Tennis star Coco Gauff, at 16 years old, speaks at a protest in Florida, and college athletes, including the Clemson football team pictured here, lead protests on campus and march through towns. Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad marches in Los Angeles, as does Miami Heat assistant Caron Butler. Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and more than 100 other NHL players make statements denouncing racial inequality, acknowledging their privilege and pledging to learn and do better. Tyler Seguin protests in Dallas and Zdeno Chara in Boston, while Jonathan Toews meets with activists in Chicago. MLB players such as Aaron Judge, Dexter Fowler, Bryce Harper and C.C. Sabathia speak out through various platforms. Minnesota Timberwolves stars Karl Anthony-Towns and Josh Okogie help lead protests in Minneapolis and in the coming days the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx host a RISE Critical Conversation with the organization, city mayor and law enforcement to discuss next steps.
NFL stars share video demanding league condemns racism and support player protests
In the passionate video, players such as Patrick Mahomes, Michael Thomas, Saquon Barkley, Deshaun Watson, Odell Beckham Jr. and DeAndre Hopkins, among others, relay how not only could they have been George Floyd, but they are Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner and the many other Black men, women and children killed. They also demand the NFL state that it condemns “racism and the systemic oppression of black people,” admit it was wrong to silence players from peacefully protesting and believe black lives matter. The following day, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released a video and statement, saying those exact words: “We, the NFL, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black People. We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter.” Goodell later said he wants to be part of the much-needed change in America, and apologized to Colin Kaepernick for the league’s handling of his protests in 2016.
To see the video, click here.
New York Liberty Host Fourth Annual UNITY Game
In the wake of the murder of Breonna Taylor in 2020, the team hosted “STAY LOUD: Why We #SayHerName” to educate fans about the origins of the #SayHerName campaign, the many Black women victims who have died due to brutal law enforcement encounters, insight behind the disproportionate media coverage, and the role of sports activism and allyship in the pursuit for justice. Players hosted a virtual panel on August 26th and key activations during their fourth annual UNITY game vs. the Dallas Wings on August 27th. Click here to view more about the campaign.
U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee defies IOC rule and ends ban on athlete protests
The International Olympic Committee’s Rule 50 has long banned protests at the Olympics, but it was the U.S. committee that sent track & field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos home from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City when the two raised their fists to protest racial injustice during their medal ceremony. Nothing had changed in 2019, when the U.S.O.P.C reprimanded hammer thrower Gwen Berry and fencer Race Imboden for protesting on the medals stand at the Pan American Games. However, in December 2020 the U.S.O.P.C. announced it would no longer punish athletes who participate in peaceful protests, despite the IOC refusing to end Rule 50. The American federation’s decision comes at the recommendation of the athlete-led Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice.
Renee Montgomery becomes first former WNBA player to become a part owner and executive of a WNBA franchise
As a member of the Atlanta Dream, Montgomery opts out of the WNBA season in June 2020 to focus on issues of social justice, voter suppression and education, but later in the year starts envisioning a future as a co-owner in the league. That moment comes in early 2021 with her own team, when Kelly Loeffler sells the Dream to an ownership group that includes Montgomery. Dream players and stars from across the WNBA wanted Loeffler removed after she wrote a letter criticizing the league and the Black Lives Matter movement, and Montgomery would write an ensuing letter to Loeffler that would go unanswered. Ultimately, Loeffler decides to sell the team and now Montgomery is part owner, the first former WNBA player to earn that title.
Athletes from around the world leverage their platforms to protest racism and injustice during the Tokyo Olympics. American shot-putter Raven Saunders and fencer Race Imboden both flash an “X” on the medal stand to represent the “intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.” Hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised her first to protest racial injustice before her event, while members of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team kneeled before the start of their opening match for the same cause. So too did women’s soccer players from Great Britain, Chile, New Zealand and Japan. Costa Rican gymnast Luciana Alvarado took a knee and put her first in the air after finishing her floor routine. The International Olympic Committee’s longstanding Rule 50 bars athletes from expressing any form of political or social protest before, during or after competition. But leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, the IOC says it will allow athletes to participate in social activism while on the field of play before their events begin, though still preventing athletes from protesting during competition or while on the medal podium. The following day, the World Players Association union announces it will cover legal fees for any athletes who face punishment for such public demonstrations. On the day of opening ceremony in Tokyo, more than 150 athletes, academics and social justice advocates, including RISE, sign an open letter demanding changes to Rule 50 and urging the IOC to “refrain from imposing sanctions on athletes protesting and demonstrating.” The USOPC had decided in December 2020 not to punish its athletes for on-field demonstrations.