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U of T expert on why the widening NFL protests are important

Cleveland Browns players kneel during the national anthem before the NFL game between the Browns and Indianapolis Colts on Sunday (photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

When U.S. President Donald Trump took on professional athletes late last week, calling on NFL owners to "fire or suspend" any players taking a knee during the American anthem and uninviting the NBA Golden State Warriors from the White House, it sparked wider protests. Rather than silence dissent, Trump's Twitter outbursts had the opposite effect, with more than 200 NFL players kneeling or standing with locked arms in a massive show of solidarity.

Simon Darnell, an assistant professor at University of Toronto's Faculty of Kinseology and Physical Education, spoke to Jelena Damjanovic about the widening protest, and the impact of athletes acting as agents of civil disobedience and instigators of social change. Darnell’s research interests include social movements and activism in sport, as well as sport, race and post-colonialism.

"It’s getting nearly impossible, I would imagine, to be a professional athlete in North America and maintain any ignorance of what is happening," he says. "That is, in many ways, a real victory in and of itself."

 What are these protests trying to highlight and is this the right platform to do it?

The players who have been involved in these protests have been quite clear that they are using their profiles to call attention to the various injustices and inequalities experienced by people of colour – and Black people in particular – within the United States. This includes, obviously, police violence but also issues like poverty and gentrification. In general, I would say that these protests remind us that the Black athletes we see on TV are not necessarily representative of the Black experience in the U.S. (or in Canada for that matter).

As for whether this is the right platform to draw attention to such issues, I think any platform that calls out injustice can be seen as the right platform. It’s only the exceptionalism sometimes ascribed to sport (i.e. that it’s just a game, or that sport and politics don’t mix) that leads some to conclude that sport is an inappropriate venue for social or political dissent. But the fact is that sport and politics have always been connected, even though it’s often been in the interests of relatively powerful groups to claim otherwise. What we’re seeing now is a highly motivated and even hyper-visible example of this, spurred on by the turbulence of the political moment.

Athletes engaging in acts of civil disobedience are not without precedent in the history of sport, but have there ever been protests of this large a scale, with so many club owners siding with the players?

I think you could make the case that we’ve never seen anything like this of any sort, such are the times we live in. There have been acts of political dissent in sport for decades; what may be different now is the growing sense of solidarity and collectivity amongst athlete activists. I think it’s also really significant that white athletes have joined in the demonstrations and supported their Black teammates, and that owners of clubs – and even the commissioner of the NFL – are also supporting the right to protest. These are people with arguably less to gain from these acts of dissent, and yet even they are realizing the collective importance, significance and need for justice. 

That said, we should recognize that some owners have specifically supported the right of athletes to protest, which is not necessarily the same as agreeing with the political perspective that players like Colin Kaepernick (the former San Francisco 49er quarterback who started the take a knee protest) have put forth. Again, this speaks to the politics of the moment that even the right to protest now needs to be defended, before we even get to discussing the actual issues. 

Trump uninviting the NBA Golden State Warriors resonated across the basketball world, and on Saturday night Oakland Athletic’s rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first athlete to take a knee in a major-league baseball game. Do you expect the protest to spread among athletes across sports? Could they inspire a larger movement for change?

I think we are seeing the protests spread across sports, and even throughout popular culture. One point to make here – and this is based on my research over the past few years into the experiences of athlete activists – is that many athletes don’t necessarily want to be political activists and don’t make strategic decisions about when and where to join a movement. It’s more accurate to say that they feel compelled to act, or that they reach a point where they can’t ignore what is happening any longer.

I think the current round of athlete activism has been successful primarily for its ability to draw more people into its wake. It’s getting nearly impossible, I would imagine, to be a professional athlete in North America and maintain any ignorance of what is happening. That is, in many ways, a real victory in and of itself.    

Not everyone is in favour of the protests, however, with some players and fans calling it disrespectful. Do you expect the backlash from those opposing the protests to affect attendance and viewing rates of the games? 

Athlete activists have always faced a backlash for speaking out, and that is likely to continue. Some fans clearly disapprove, and may stop consuming sports as a result. And there are also some athletes who feel that their teammates are acting inappropriately.

From my research, I know that some athletes in team sports feel like they have to stay quiet on political issues in order to maintain the focus and cohesion of the group, a demand put on them by coaches or the general culture of their sport. However, I think we’re seeing real support right now for the rights of athlete activists and increasing recognition that they are entitled to be more than simply fodder for our pleasure and consumption. From this perspective, we can still marvel at their athleticism and recognize them as full citizens.

In other words, we can mix sports and politics to the betterment of both.