Written by: Dr. Joseph Cooper
On September 1, 2016, before the NFL regular season game between the San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers, Colin Kaepernick captured the nation’s attention by kneeling during the playing the of the national anthem as an act of protest against police brutality and social injustices in the United States (U.S.). Although, Kaepernick had chosen not to stand during the NFL pre-season games of the 2016-2017 season, the visibility of the nationally televised Thursday night game generated a broader national conversation on activism and sport. Since Kaepernick’s initial kneel, there ongoing debates and discussions about protests, patriotism, police brutality, politics, and power relations in the U.S. society. These conversations have occurred everywhere from mainstream news shows, internet blogs, coffee shops, late night comedy shows, sports shows, schools, barbershops and beauty salons, political speeches, town halls, and community spaces.
On October 18, 2017, the UConn campus community extended this dialogue by engaging in a formal conversation on the topic of “Race, Sport, and Activism.” This event was co-sponsored by the Collective Uplift student organization, UConn Athletics Department, and UConn Sport Management Program. The aim of the event was to facilitate a healthy discussion on how race, sport, and activism have been historically and contemporarily intertwined and contributed to positive social progress. Dr. Joseph Cooper, Assistant Professor in Sport Management, was the lead organizer and moderator for the event. According to Cooper, the event provided
“A much needed concerted space for the campus to focus on the ways in which sport and athletes use their respective platforms to communicate messages about broader social issues and ignite positive change in society.”
The panel began with an evocative video of a spoken word artist named Tariq Touré who delivered a powerful poem titled “For the Love the Game.” The poem provided illustrative descriptions of contested sporting spaces that reinforce damaging power relationships between White male economic elites (i.e., NFL owners) and Black male laborers (i.e., a majority of NFL players) , reflect persisting racial inequalities, and fosters an apolitical culture that suppresses Blacks’ engagement in political and social justice engagement. Following the video, Cooper highlighted the historical legacy of activism efforts through sport for race-related social justice causes. Within this description, different types of activism were presented including symbolic, scholarly/educational, grassroots, sport-based, economic, political, legal, media, and music and art. Each of the aforementioned types of activism have been utilized by Black athletes and institutions redress injustices in society. In addition, the historical overview connected sport activism dating back to the late 1800s to the most recent acts of activism in the 21st century.
Following the historical overview, three videos of Colin Kaepernick’s initial post-game explanation of why he chose to take a knee, President Trump’s recent comments about how he feels NFL owners should respond to players who choose not to stand for the anthem, and President Obama’s response to a military service member who inquired about his feelings about the NFL anthem protests were presented. After the videos, the six panelists were introduced. The six panelists included
- Deshon Foxx - current graduate student in the UConn Sport Management program, UConn alumnus (’14 in Sociology), former UConn football player (2010-2014)), and former NFL player (2014-2017)
- Angelo Pruitt - current Financial Advisor for Merrill Edge, UConn alumnus (’15 in Economics), and former UConn football player (2010-2015)
- Tyrae Sims - current undergraduate student in the UConn Sport Management program and former UConn football player (2013-2016)
- Kelli Thomas - current undergraduate student in Human Development and Family Studies and current track and field athlete (2013-present)
- Folorunso Fatukasi - UConn alumnus (’17 in Sociology) and current UConn football player (2013-present)
- Aaron Garland - current undergraduate student in Political Science and current UConn football player (2015-2017)
The panelists were asked questions regarding their perspectives on the videos of Kaepernick, President Trump, and President Obama as well as their thoughts on athletes engaging in activism and specific recommendations that felt would contribute to positive change in society.
Pruitt emphasized how his heightened social consciousness during the latter stages of and following his athletic career influenced his perceptions of activism through sport. He said
“Your sport is what you play. It is not who you are.”
In his opinion, although he did not engage in activism during his playing career, if he could go back knowing what he knows now he would encourage more activism among current athletes. Foxx reflected on his NFL career when he was a member of the Seattle Seahawks immediately following Kaepernick’s activism. He described how he and his teammates agreed locking arms as a team would send a powerful message about unity while expressing support for Kaepernick. He also highlighted the real fear that comes with a lack of job security as a professional athlete when considering to engage in activism. However, he explained how his increased social consciousness throughout his playing career has motivated him to encourage athletes using their platform to foster positive change in society.
Sims expressed the need for athletes challenge power systems that suppress their authentic identities. He explained how athletes are not disconnected from social injustices occurring in the broader society and being educated on these issues is an important first step. Specifically, he referenced how in his hometown community, police brutality and other offenses were not uncommon and thus athletes like himself who are closely connected to these issues feel more compelled to speak out and do anything they can to address these issues. Thomas provided an important lens as a Black woman athlete and described how often times she feels she does not have the same influence as her same race male counterparts in more high profile sports (football and basketball). She explained the importance of athletes using a range of platforms to challenge social injustice outside of sport.
Fatukasi offered an insightful perspective on being a current college athlete and the legitimate fears associated with engaging in activism. Similar to Foxx, Fatukasi has NFL aspirations and said engaging in activism as a current player could hinder his chances of achieving his professional goals. He also emphasized the importance of athletes’ developing themselves holistically and accessing support systems to assist them with balancing difficult decisions about how to promote social change while minimizing the adverse impact on their sport aspirations. Garland expressed the power of collective efforts when seeking to address social injustices. He described how pursuing these efforts alone can be challenging and gaining the support and involvement of an entire team or a group of people is a way to achieve more impactful change. The panel concluded with Q&A from the audience.
The event was well-attended with over 60 attendees and media coverage from CTN and university based media outlets. Cooper said he hopes this is event serves as
“One more step forward within a larger legacy of social justice efforts to create more reflection, education, empowerment, and action that leads to positive changes in our society.”
For those who attended this event and heard from the panelists, it is clear this message resonated loud and clear.