Black Athletes Who Protested Racism

Tavon Austin, Jared Cook and Chris Givens of the St. Louis Rams pay homage to Michael Brown by holding their hands up during their pregame introduction against the Oakland Raiders at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on Nov. 30, 2014.
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

It was a powerful image: black football players standing united against campus racism. The Missouri Tigers’ boycott of games and practices drew national attention. As the New York Times observed, after months of student and faculty protests, it was the team’s refusal to play that likely “dealt the fatal blow” that led to the resignation of the university’s president, Timothy Wolfe. Forfeiture of Saturday’s upcoming game against Brigham Young University would have cost the university at least $1 million.

Black athletes have long used their prominence and leverage to voice outrage over injustice and discrimination.


Tommie Smith and John Carlos


The protest that led to their iconic image took place at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Tommie Smith and John Carlos stepped onto the victory podium and raised their fists in silent but powerful protest against brutal discrimination back home. They did this during the medal ceremony at the playing of the national anthem.

Muhammad Ali


Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali added his voice to the civil rights movement. He also became a prominent figure in the anti-war movement by refusing to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. A federal court in Houston sentenced Ali in 1967 to five years in prison and ordered him to pay a $10,000 fine.

The Black 14


Fourteen black University of Wyoming football players asked their coach to allow them to wear black armbands during a 1969 game against Brigham Young University, which was operated by the Mormon Church. They wanted to protest the church’s policy of banning African Americans from entering its priesthood. Coach Lloyd Eaton dismissed the athletes from the team, which set off a series of federal court cases, known as Williams v. Eaton, over free speech.

The Syracuse Eight


Nine black Syracuse University football players (who mistakenly became known as the Syracuse Eight) boycotted practices and games over “institutional racist mistreatment of players,” according to the university’s archives. They made great personal sacrifices for their protest, but it ultimately brought about change.

Serena Williams


Tennis superstar Serena Williams ended her 14-year boycott of the $5 million Indian Wells, Calif., tournament earlier this year. Back in 2001 Richard Williams, the coach and father of Venus and Serena Williams, said that the Indian Wells crowd hurled the n-word at his daughters when Venus withdrew from a match against Serena.

St. Louis Rams


Five St. Louis Rams football players showed their solidarity last year with protesters in Ferguson, Mo., by jogging onto the field for pregame introductions with the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture, a reference to the testimony of some witnesses who said that Michael Brown had his hands up before white Police Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot the unarmed black teenager.

Miami Heat


In 2012 LeBron James tweeted a photo of himself and his Miami Heat teammates wearing hoodies. The NBA stars added their voices to those demanding justice for Trayvon Martin, who was wearing a hooded sweatshirt when neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman fatally shot the unarmed black teenager in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2013 sparked nationwide protests.

Derrick Rose


Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose came onto the court for warmups last year wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt. Those were the last words of Eric Garner, a Staten Island, N.Y., man who died when a white police officer used a choke hold to arrest the unarmed man for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, but a grand jury declined to indict New York City Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo.  

Nigel Roberts is a New York City-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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