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NFL: 'They were standing on the shoulders of giants'

MAKING A STAND: Jacksonville Jaguars players kneel in protest before the NFL game at Wembley

BEFORE I forget my manners, happy Black History Month.

But it really would be remiss of me, as we celebrate the history that has been taken from us, to not say a few words about last week’s sporting protest in the United States (and across the world – not least at Wembley Stadium, where the Jacksonville Jaguars were taking on the Baltimore Ravens in one ah dem globetrotting international fixtures) which saw many of the great stars of NFL refuse to stand to attention for the American national anthem before their gridiron games. There was no Knees up Mother Brown for them last week.

On the contrary, it was knees down to the ground in rejection of the America that does not live up to its declaration in its constitution that “we hold these things to be self evident” that “all men were born equal”.

It was arguably the most significant protest by African-Americans since Jon Carlos and Tommie Smith’s iconic stance at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 in support of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which by definition was a critical response to the lack of human rights for black America at a time when we were still considered to be second class if not third class, so-called third world, citizens in the land of the so-called brave.

STANDING STRONG: American sprinter Tommie Smith in 1968

In reality, that stance by Tommie Smith and John Carlos took real guts and bravery as virtually the whole stadium hissed and catcalled them for simply bowing their heads down as the American national anthem was played.

Those spectators should be ashamed of themselves. That protest didn’t just take guts, it took determination.

If Tommie Smith had not won that 200 metre Olympic final we wouldn’t be talking about it today. Because if he had not won, there would have been no American national anthem being played and therefore no sound track of oppression to hang his head in shame to and raise his black gloved hand in rejection of. If Tommie Smith had not won that race, it would have been the Australian national anthem that would have been played for the silver medallist Peter Norman, the white guy who totally supported the protest of his fellow sprinters on the podium and showed this by sporting the badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights on his tracksuit as he went to collect his medal.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos were amongst the bravest of the brave. But they were standing on the shoulders of giants.

By 1968, Cassius Clay had rejected his slave name and become Muhammad Ali and had sacrificed his multi-million dollar income and, arguably, the best years of his boxing career, to make a stand for black people and against the war in Vietnam. His protest came at a huge cost. And he was alone. He didn’t have the support of another, as Tommie Smith and John Carlos had of each other when they took the podium in Mexico ’68. Ali was on his own. That is why he was the greatest and is the greatest and will always be the greatest. Nobody else can call themselves that.

RESISTANCE: Muhammad Ali protesting in 1967 (image credit: BT)

Arguably, though, Ali also stood on the shoulders of giants such as Jack Johnson in boxing and Jackie Robinson in baseball and Paul Robeson in American football and Jesse Owens on the track. All of whom took principled stands for the black man and black woman.

I know there must be many black women in sport who also stood firm and were militant, but the history has been written by men...So don’t let anyone tell you that sport and politics don’t mix and should be kept apart.
Only a bloke with eye holes cut out of the bedsheet over his head would seriously suggest that. Because since time immemorial, the two have been umbilically linked, not least in the arena of emancipation and equal rights and justice (when the doping cheating druggies are weeded out) and has been the way for oppressed people to get up and stand up for their rights since Pheidippides ran the 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to tell the good news with his last breath that, because of a famous victory, the Greeks would not be enslaved by the Persians. After which, he promptly dropped down dead.

Sport is the best platform that we have, because it is in sport that we excel. We may not have the power in the real world, but in the arena we got the power. So why wouldn’t we use it?

In fact, I have been mystified these past few years since the death of Trayvon Martin as to why the kind of protest we saw amongst NFL players last weekend had not occurred yonks ago. Since Trayvon (and before), black men have been shot dead for fun by the cops stateside. Or at least that’s the way it seems. I was gobsmacked that sports men didn’t protest then. Apart from Colin Kaepernick, who started taking the knee some time ago and has subsequently lost his multi-million dollar job as a result.

BRAVE: NFL player Colin Kaepernick (image credit: ESPN)

I was gobsmacked, but I shouldn’t have been because our sportsmen and women don’t protest over here.
Hell, neither do most of those high-profile BBC presenters that you see on your telly and hear on your radio.
So why should the sportsmen be any different?

What was different about last week’s protest though is that there was unity. Not every black sportsman took part. But then you don’t need weakhearts in a struggle. As long as you’ve got some lionhearts in there who are brave enough and are not afraid of the consequences, come what may, and who want to see a better society for their children and their children’s children and everybody else’s children’s children. That’s all you need to take on even the president of the United States.

Oh yeah, Donald Trump, in his language about the NFL players (almost exclusively black, although let’s not forget the support by the handful of white guys who have joined in to support their fellow black athletes – Seth DeValve comes to mind, not least because he is married to a sister who I spoke to the other day about her husband joining in and who told me she was immensely proud of him) protesting was dog whistling to his racist white supporters that he is still on their side.

Well, he may be on their side, but why should we care – with God on our side?

Dotun Adebayo is Britain’s most listened-to black radio talk show host. He presents Up All Night on BBC Radio 5 live Thursdays through Sundays on 909/693 MW, The Sunday Night Special on BBC 94.9FM and Reggae Time on BBC London 94.9FM on Saturday evenings. Tune in if you’re ranking!

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