April 15, 2022 | SPORTS | By Michael Braithwaite | Illustration by Sierra Romero
Every year, Major League Baseball teams play a game with each player, coach, and umpire all wearing the same number: 42. Although these games are played by normal baseball rules, the single-day, league-wide number change may seem like an odd phenomenon to those unfamiliar with the history of protest in the MLB and other North American sports.
The day, known as Jackie Robinson Day, is a celebration of the man who helped progress American professional baseball away from its racist, segregated policies.
On April 15, 1947, 75 years ago today, Robinson, wearing the number 42, made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In that moment, he broke the color barrier that had forbidden players of color from playing in major league baseball to that point.
To this day, Robinson’s legacy remains entrenched within his bold decision to help combat racial segregation not only within the realm of baseball, but within the greater United States as well.
Robinson’s first MLB game is perhaps the most well-known historical example of sports being used as a medium of protest and to ignite change in American society. However, it is only one of numerous examples throughout American sports history.
Just about 11 years before Robinson’s landmark game, American sprinter Jesse Owens competed in the 1936 Olympic Games. These summer Olympics were held in Germany and included opening remarks from Hitler, as well as other high-ranking members of the Nazi elite.
Competing in an arena filled with German citizens who bought into the idea that the ‘superior’ human was Aryan, Owens, a Black man, beat out many of his white opponents, setting a plethora of both Olympic and world records in the process. With Hitler looking on, Owens won four gold medals, cementing his place not only in Olympic history but also in the history of the global fight for racial equality.
32 years after Owens stood against the core of Nazi ideology on the track, two more Black Americans protested racial injustice on the Olympic stage. At the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, college teammates at San Jose State, stood on the podium after getting first and third, respectively, in the 200-meter dash.
As the Star-Spangled Banner played, both athletes turned towards the American flag and raised their fists. The image of this event is perhaps one of the most famous in the history of modern Olympic competition.
This solute came amidst a time of racial turmoil both in the United States and abroad. “It was a cry for freedom and for human rights,” said Smith in a 2008 interview.
Both American athletes were immediately suspended from the Olympic village following the protest. The athlete who won silver in the event, Australian Peter Norman, was prohibited from ever representing his country in professional competition again due to his decision to stand with the protesting Americans.
A year after Smith and Carlos brought discussions about race to the global stage, college football programs in the United States saw these conversations trickle onto the field. While playing in Wyoming, 14 black Oregon State University football players were suspended for wearing black armbands which protested their upcoming game against Brigham Young University.
At the time, BYU promoted controversial Mormon racial doctrines that not only prohibited those of African descent from becoming a religious minister, but also taught that people with black skin were an ‘inferior’ race.
Although the protest did not amount to any change in the short term, it ignited similar protests at other schools across the country, including at Indiana University and the University of Washington.
Moving forward to the 1990s, American professional basketball became the stage for another significant political protest. Although Michael Jordan was catching most of the NBA’s headlines in 1995 due to his retirement, Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was catching others for non-basketball reasons.
Nearly 20 years before NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick famously took a knee before games to protest the treatment of Black Americans at the hands of the police, Abdul-Rauf refused to join his teammates on the floor before games during the National Anthem, saying that he could not honor America’s flag as it was a symbol of oppression.
The NBA did not respond kindly to Abdul-Rauf’s refusal to honor the flag, both fining and suspending the guard for doing so. A few days after his suspension, Abdul-Rauf reached a compromise with the league, agreeing to stand for the flag if he could silently pray downwards while the anthem was played. This compromise allowed him the ability to keep playing in games while still not having to address the flag.
And so, on this 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s entrance into Major League Baseball, let us take a moment to acknowledge him and the others who used sports to get their message out to the world and stand up to the injustices they were facing.
The realm of sports is one of the greatest known mediums that we can use to channel the human spirit. It is full of athletes who devote their lives to a craft in order to push the boundaries of what we can achieve, and awe-inspiring moments that seem too scripted and fake to even remotely be true.
Sports provide us an opportunity to surpass superfluous differences to achieve a common goal. The personal, national, and international ideals woven into its fabric transcend any sort of distinction, whether they are racial, ethnic, or cultural.
No matter what some may say, the medium of sports has always been intertwined with movements of social and political protest. And as long as the goal of sport is to promote ideals of achievement, skill, dedication, and competition, it always will be.