13 Athletes Who Risked Everything For Your Freedom


After President Trump said that the NFL should fire football players who protest during games, multitudes of teams and individual players protested on Sunday, Sept. 24. "Fire or suspend!" the president tweeted out early that same morning. It was the third day in a row that Trump spoke forcefully about the NFL's tolerance for players who demonstrate on the field.

During last year's football season, then-quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers Colin Kaepernick gained notoriety for refusing to stand while the national anthem played before games. Kaepernick openly explained that he was protesting the oppression of people of color in the United States. His decision became the subject of fierce debate and the controversy has continued into the current season, though Kaepernick isn't currently signed to a team.

Athletes, particularly athletes of color, using their position of fame and influence to bring injustices to the foreground of public discourse is not new. Over the years, dozens of athletes across disciplines and leagues, from the collegiate to the professional, have protested for reproductive rights, equal pay, LGBTQ rights, and against a plethora of racist incidents and practices. Each time a a protest makes headlines, the same debate ensues: does protection under the First Amendment mean that it's okay for sports figures to direct attention to their political beliefs during game time? Regardless of right or wrong, the practice has has frequently made history.

Carlos Delgado

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In 2004, Blue Jays slugger Carlos Delgado took issue with the US invasion of Iraq. Incidentally, this happened during a season in which his team was scheduled to play the New York Yankees 19 times. At the time, according to The Chicago Tribune, the Yankees were known as the only team who played patriotic anthem "God Bless America" in the middle of their seventh inning during every game. Delgado, protesting the Iraq War, declined to come on to the field during the song. Instead, he stood in the dugout.

"I don't [stand] because I don’t believe it’s right,” Delgado told the Toronto Star at the time, adding, “I don’t believe in the war.”

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Venus Williams And Equal Pay

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Until 2007, men and women tennis players who won at Wimbledon were not awarded the same amount of money. That changed when Venus Williams made it her personal mission to verbally protest the inequality.

According to The Washington Post, Williams personally appealed to the Grand Slam governing board in 2005, but her appeal for equal prize money between sexes failed. Instead, the next year, she published an op-ed in The Times of London, publicly shaming the relentlessly sexist practice.

The next year, after winning the Wimbledon championship, Williams was awarded $1.4 million, the exact same prize awarded to the male victor.

Tommie Smith And John Carlos

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Between the Vietnam War and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the United States was in turmoil in 1968. With political and social tensions so precarious, some athletes looked at that year's summer Olympics in Mexico City as an opportunity to take a stand.

When U.S. runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos won gold and bronze in the men's 200 meter final, they mounted the award podium without shoes and their jackets unzipped. When the U.S. national anthem began to play, each bowed his head and raised a black-gloved hand in a Black Power salute. Because they had broken Olympic protocol, they were kicked out of the games, according to The Toronto Star, but were allowed to keep their medals.

Muhammad Ali

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In 1966, boxer Muhammad Ali found out he was eligible to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. However, two years prior he had formally announced his conversation to Islam, and when he found he was eligible to be drafted, applied to be considered a conscientious objector, and therefore exempt from conscription. According to the SCOTUS Blog, his request was been denied. Ali did show up for his induction the following year, but he refused to step forward when his name was called.

"My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America," Ali said in a video interview. "How can I shoot them poor people?" he asked. "Just take me to jail."

Ali's ability to box in the United States was suspended for three years. Through a series of complex court cases, Ali eventually won back his ability to fight, avoiding jail time during a long appeals process.

Toni Smith

In 2003, Manhattanville College women's basketball senior guard Toni Smith began quietly turning her back on the American flag, when the national anthem played before games.

She didn't initially explain why, but according to The New York Times, Smith later issued a statement explaining that she was protesting the U.S. potentially going to war with Iraq.

The Syracuse 8

Dubbed the Syracuse 8, there were actually nine student athletes who boycotted the 1970 football season at Syracuse University. One protest participant was out with an injury at the time, which the media was unaware of.

The nine players had four demands, according African American Registry, a nonprofit education group. These demands were better medical care for all players, better access to academics, transparent and fair selection for all positions, and a diversified coaching staff.

In 2006, Syracuse University recognized the nine during a halftime ceremony, and bestowed each athlete with the lettermen jackets they were not awarded 36 years prior.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf

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In 1996, NBA player for the Denver Nuggets, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, refused to stand during "The Star Spangled Banner." Having converted to Islam five years prior, Abdul-Rauf cited his religious beliefs as the cause for his protest. In a television interview at the time, according to The Washington Post, Abdul-Rauf called the U.S. flag "a symbol of oppression [and] of tyranny."

Initially, Abdul-Rauf was fined and suspended for one game. But several days after his initial protest, he struck a deal with the NBA which allowed him to bow his head and close his eyes during the national anthem, so long as he still stood. Abdul-Rauf left the NBA in 1998.

Seattle Storm's Planned Parenthood Rally

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On July 18, WNBA team the Seattle Storm hosted a pre-game rally in support of Planned Parenthood. According to The Guardian, the event took place before the only game that would be nationally televised during the season. It was the first time a WNBA has publicly partnered with the nonprofit.

The team is co-owned by three women: Dawn Trudeau, Lisa Brummel, and Ginny Gilder. Several players skipped warmups to attend the rally, The Guardian reported.

Derrick Rose

In Dec. 2014, NBA player for the Chicago Bulls, Derrick Rose, wore a black t-shirt with the lettering "I Can't Breathe" on court during warmups.

The shirt referenced the last words said by Eric Garner, a black man who died after a police officer on Staten Island put him in an illegal chokehold on July 17, 2014. The police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, was never indicted, even though the entire event was caught on video.

Rose did not grant interviews following the protest, according to ABC News, but fellow teammates voiced support.

Five St. Louis Rams

While months of protests ensued in Ferguson, Missouri after 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by police officers in August 2014, five members of the St. Louis Rams protested at a game the following November. The protest occurred on Nov. 30, five days after a grand jury opted not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot Brown.

According to ESPN, players Jared Cook, Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey, Chris Givens and Tavon Austin stopped during pregame introductions and raised their hands. The move was a nod toward Brown, who some witnesses said had raised his hands before he died.

The Black 14

In 1969, fourteen black football players at the University of Wyoming were kicked off their team. According to the Wyoming Historical Society, they were planning to protest a policy within the Mormon church that banned black members from priesthood, and therefore church leadership.

The University of Wyoming Cowboys were slated to play against Brigham Young University, which is owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, colloquially referred to as the Mormons. When the student athletes learned that they would not be allowed to protest, they went to their coach's office wearing black armbands that they intended to wear during the upcoming game. Their coach all but immediately kicked them off the team, before the game even happened.

Their dismissal prompted protests from other student athletes at the University of Wyoming, as well as by students at other universities that played against Brigham Young. The Black 14 were never reinstated, but in 1978 the Mormon church announced it would no longer ban black members from holding leadership positions.

Brittney Griner And Layshia Clarendon

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When Houston-raised Phoenix Mercury player Brittney Griner learned that the Texas state legislature intended to pass a bill requiring transgender people to use bathrooms consistent with the gender on their birth certificate, the basketball player took to the press. Teaming up with Atlanta Dream player Layshia Clarendon, the two published an op-ed on NBC News decrying the bill's discriminatory nature.

The bill was killed one day later, when the state legislature prematurely ended their session, The Arizona Republic reported. According to The Arizona Republic, Griner came out as gay in 2013 and has been a vocal advocate for the LGBTQ community ever since.

WNBA And Black Lives Matter

Less than 24 hours after its July 21, 2016 announcement that it was fining teams and players participating in Black Lives Matter protests, the WNBA rescinded its decree, according to The Washington Post.

The initial penalty came after Indiana Fever, New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury players wore black t-shirts during warmups in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Originally fined $5,000 dollars per team and $500 per player, the WNBA rescinded their punishment after public outcry. WNBA president Lisa Borders Tweeted on July 23, 2016, "Appreciate our players expressing themselves on matters important to them. Rescinding imposed fines to show them even more support."

Sometimes protests by athletes directly influence change, but always do they spark a conversation. In speeches and Tweets, Trump has specifically targeted the NFL, but the ability for athletes to initiate conversations about fundamental rights extends beyond Sunday football games. Today's players are following in the footsteps of the dozens before them that have used similar access to the public to take a stand for what they believe in.