The Era of the Athlete Protest

HOST INTRO: Since Black Lives Matter protests began, more black athletes have been outspoken about civil rights. The movement may have started with top sports superstars, but some younger players are getting in the game, too. Just last week, the high school boy’s basketball team at Kobe Bryant’s alma mater in Philadelphia wore black t-shirts in solidarity with Muslim immigrants.

But for elite college athletes, speaking out can be complicated. The University of Connecticut Women’s basketball team continued its historic win streak this week. And for now, players are keeping to the sidelines of any political debate. Acacia O’Connor reports.

At the XL Center in Hartford, Wednesday night, the UConn Huskies are doing what they do best. Winning.

A fervent call and response cheer is underway.

(cheering :: UCONN HUSKIES :: ambi)

But if you’re looking for signs of the current political climate, there’s not much to see. The only poster-boards are giant cutouts of players’ heads.

Still, freshman point guard Crystal Dangerfield says she’s seen protests on campus.

DANGERFIELD: Just seeing around school that there are things going on, rallies being held and marches even. It’s great that they’re taking the effort to go do that and have something structured. And I wish I could join. But you can’t get to everything.

Life is busy when you’re a part of one of the greatest collegiate sports programs in history.

But if the Huskies win the national championship this year for the fifth year in a row. The team will get invited to the White House. And at this moment in time, that will spark a debate about whether they’ll go and why.

Sociologist Fritz Polite teaches sports management at Shenandoah University. He says atheltes have a history of protest.

POLITE: We’ve always had activism in sport. Serena Williams did it. Jackie Robinson did it. Mohammed Ali did it. Billie Jean King did it.

But these athletes were professionals at the top of their game. College athletes? They’re still trying to get to the top, where contracts and multi-million dollar endorsements await. That can make protesting as an individual a big gamble.

But to badly paraphrase Margaret Mead, never underestimate a small group of thoughtful, committed jocks.

Take the University of Missouri football team. Two years ago, the entire team threatened a boycott over racial comments — and the President of the University system and its chancellor resigned.

POLITE: They were solidified in their movement. One hundred percent. Every single player, not one broke the line.

That’s Polite again. He says that, little by little, younger generation of athletes have begun to realize their power.

POLITE: People don’t come to see the coach. They come to see the players. That is what young people are starting to realize. That they can impact change. We’re not going to play the game. We’re not going to go to practice. We demand certain inalienable rights.

Back in the UConn players lounge, junior forward Gabby Williams says she feels the team’s power to affect change — especially if they stay together.

WILLIAMS: As a team we have an amazing platform that not a lot of people have.

On the night of her own monumental achievement– she scored her 1000th point in Wednesday’s game–Williams says things are changing.

WILLIAMS: At the end of the day, I’m going to be a black woman when I leave the court, when I leave UConn, so what am I going to do about that. And I think a lot of athletes are starting to think that way.

The Huskies win over Temple on Wednesday put them one game closer to the Championship. And the White House. Williams says, whether they go or don’t go, it’s a decision the team will make, together.

Acacia O’Connor, Columbia Radio News

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