Give the gift of sports and radical politics this year
Paul Robeson attended Rutgers on a full scholarship, becoming the university's first black football player. | Rutgers University

For good or ill, the holiday season is upon us. This of course means: family gatherings, good food, strong drinks, sports, and…politics.

After making it through nearly a year of Trump’s tweets, racism, “alt-right” nationalism, and unfulfilled, pie-in-the-sky promises to working people, we will enter 2018 bruised, bloodied, and raw. This year’s family holiday dinners will be vicious and divided, not because of football team rivalries, but because of what side you take in the NFL: Trump or Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter?

And as this conversation continues around dinner tables and bars nationwide, a consistent theme has developed among Trump supporters and the Republican establishment: “Protest politics do not belong in sports entertainment.”

Trump and Co. point to the NFL’s drop in ratings as a victory. They ignore the obvious: streaming platforms—Amazon Prime, Youtube TV, Hulu, and the like—are now giving us our sports fix free of commercials. That’s more responsible for the drop in cable viewers and corporate sponsors than any Trump-inspired “boycott.”

But more importantly, these red-blooded, American patriots continue to conveniently erase our nation’s rebellious sports history for a false sense of political superiority. They’d rather plug their ears than discuss the issues of police brutality, sexual assault, the rebirth of the neo-Nazi movement, and why players are taking a knee during the national anthem.

So this reporter is back again to call out Trump—who embodies the dark, violent, and abhorrent side of the American character—and his crusade against political activism and civil liberty.

“That’s a total disrespect of our heritage. That’s a total disrespect of everything that we stand for…Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you’d say, ‘Get that son of a b**** off the field right now. Out! He’s fired.”—Donald J. Trump

As I read 45’s tweet intervening in the dispute over the national anthem, I couldn’t help but wonder what “heritage” he meant. If Trump took the time look at our nation’s sports heritage, he’d be quite surprised.

Professional sports, as we know it today, was born and bred by the working class and refined by the women’s suffrage movement. It united people of different ethnicities and immigrant groups. That unity, throughout the years, would strengthen the labor movement, civil rights movement, and the fight for social justice.

While today we focus on Colin Kaepernick taking a knee to protest the killings of African Americans by police and to highlight the failures of the American legal system—helping to create a modern day protest movement within the NFL—we unfortunately need to remember that this isn’t something new.

In the early years of football, one African-American player, dubbed the “finest player to come out of the state of New Jersey,” started what would become a lifelong career as a freedom fighter while “tackling” racism on Rutger University’s field. His name was Paul Robeson.

Despite segregation being at its peak, Rutgers football coach George Foster Stanford was thrilled to have Robeson’s talent. His team, on the other hand, pledged to not take the field if a “Negro” joined them.

“On my first day of scrimmage,” said Robeson, years later, “they set about making sure I would not get on their team. One boy slugged me in the face and smashed my nose—an injury that has been a trouble to me as a singer ever since. And then as I was down, flat on my back, another boy got me with his knee. He just came over and dropped his knee into my upper body, dislocating my right shoulder. At the age of seventeen, that was a tough going—a broken nose, a dislocated shoulder, a split lip, two swollen eyes, and plenty of other cuts and bruises.”

Sounds familiar doesn’t it? NFL owners’ commitment—supported by the executive office—to silence Kaepernick by keeping him blacklisted and off the field is similar to Robeson’s white teammates commitment to keep football segregated—just not as violent.

“When I was out on a football field or in a classroom or anywhere else, I wasn’t just there on my own,” said Robeson, “I was the representative of a lot of Negro boys who wanted to play football, who wanted to go to college; and as their representative, I had to show that I could take whatever they handed out…. This was part of our struggle.

Today, the movement for Black lives and Colin Kaepernick represent the struggle of African Americans not wanting to be killed by police or be funneled as youth from the classroom straight to a prison cell.

This also isn’t the first time African-American football players have joined together to protest injustice. In the past, they’ve taken action and won—and weren’t fired.

In 1965 the American Football League All-Star game was scheduled to take place in New Orleans, but a change of host city was forced after 21 African-American players threatened to boycott the game because of their treatment there. Denied entrance to Bourbon Street nightclubs, refused service at restaurants, told to enter hotels and buildings through the back, and more, the players refused to play.

With their actions and support from white teammates, the game was moved last minute to Houston, showing once again that direct action and protest are vital in the fight for justice.

Professional sports are apart of us. We talk about it, read about it, and watch it wherever we go. Kaepernick, along with other athletes, are using the game to draw attention to social justice issues, like Black Lives Matter, even among those who don’t think it’s right for athletes to take political action.

Whether Trump likes it or not, the heritage we should be honoring is that of protest—in the streets, classrooms, workplaces, stadiums, and arenas.

So, as you go about your holiday shopping and start prepping for those conversations, you might consider giving one of the books listed below to your sports-loving friend or family member.

Who knows, it might change they way they think about politics in sports.

Hell, I might just gift one of these to 45. His White House library still looks pretty thin.

Southern League: A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South’s Most Compelling Pennant Race…$18.45

One Nation Under Baseball: How the 1960s Collided with the National Pastime…$21.41

Paul Robeson, the Great Forerunner…$14.95

A People’s History of Sports in the United States: 250 Years of Politics, Protest, People, and Play…$18.95

How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization…$14.99

What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States…$10.26

A Spectacular Leap: Black Women Athletes in Twentieth-Century America…$27.42

Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line…29.93

Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980..$32.00

If You Were Only White: The Life of Leroy “Satchel” Paige…$15.99

Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League…$16.22

The Revolt of the Black Athlete…$22.40


Al Neal
Al Neal

Al Neal is a general assignment staff writer and photographer for People's World.