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Fifty years after boxing great Muhammad Ali and Olympic medalists John Carlos and Tommie Smith used their stardom to stage grand demonstrations against racism and poverty, protest by black athletes is still necessary for progress and equality.

The decision Ali made in 1967, when he boldly refused military recruitment to join the Vietnam War, and the “Black Power” salute that Carlos and Smith did, raising their fists during the singing of the national anthem at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, are instructive lessons for today’s athletes about the need to continue to speak out.

Ali’s monumental decision and the iconic photography that accompanied the protest of Smith and Carlos during the 1960s, stands out among the best in the American protest tradition. 

That reaffirms why athletes should have the right to express legitimate discontent over political issues -- and that includes kneeling during the national anthem. 

It is all the more reason why the NFL’s recent decision to require players to stand if they are on the field for the performance of the national anthem or stay in their locker rooms if they choose not to do so is ill-advised and goes against the historical grain. The NFL, which plans to fine teams that do not comply, seems to be betraying a fundamental ingredient in our democracy: the right to speak out.

By bowing to political pressure because of a rising campaign against athletes who have chosen to sit or kneel during the singing of the anthem to protest police brutality and other racial inequality issues, the NFL has chosen politics over the First Amendment.

Commissioner Roger Goodell in explaining the decision said, “We want people to stand and make sure they treat this moment in a respectful fashion. That’s something we think we owe.”

No matter how Goodell tries to spin the new anthem policy, it is obvious that the actions of the NFL run counter to what has made this nation a functioning democracy. Protest remains vital to democracy and dissent should not be punished or marginalized simply because some people disagreed with the dissenters.

The NFL is not a political party, nor should it become a propaganda tool for any particular viewpoint that is opposed to the issues being highlighted by some black athletes.

The Detroit Lions should think twice about this bad policy. It cannot in good conscience enforce a policy that undermines the quest by concerned black athletes to highlight the suffering of blacks. 

The Lions should take a different course, considering Detroit is a city that played a major role in the civil rights movement.

That is why people all around the world remember Ali and others of his ilk for giving impetus to the civil rights movement by using the powerful platforms that sports offered them to champion human rights. 

We celebrate their resilience and determination for not giving in despite the punishment that was meted out to them. They paid a price. Ali had to be vindicated by the Supreme Court. Carlos lost his family.

Unfortunately, history seems to be repeating itself and the NFL decision is only going to help make it happen faster than expected.

We now see a concerted effort to demonize, castigate and even professionally decapitate the careers of black athletes, who have decided to exercise their constitutional right to protest injustice.

Some of these athletes are being labelled “un-American.” 

But nothing could be further from the truth.  

Still, all is not lost because courageous athletes like LeBron James and others have refused to cower. James, who donated $2.5 million to the Ali exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, continues to speak out. 

History will not be kind to the NFL. History will not look favorably on those who are seeking to suppress the actions of black athletes who are simply making a statement by kneeling.

As John Carlos noted looking back at the 1968 Olympics: “That picture of me and Tommie on the podium is the modern-day Mona Lisa – a universal image that everyone wants to see and everyone wants to be related to in one way or another. Because we were standing for humanity.”

bankole@bankolethompson.com

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Superstation 910AM.

 

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