Not all the athletes gathered necessarily shared Alis feelings about Vietnam or would have done the same in his shoes. In fact, reports from the meeting suggest the discussion several times became heated and emotional. What they all wanted to reinforce when it was over, though, was that black athletes had the right to use their profile to speak up and speak out, and shouldnt be limited to their exploits on the court or the field or in the ring.
It was very important that you let people understand that youre more than a football player. Football is what I did, it wasnt who I was. Muhammad Ali was a boxer. Thats what he did. That wasnt who he was, Beach said.
Cue up to the present, and athletes are rejecting that compartmentalizing from fans all over again. People told me to shut up and play football, the Cleveland Browns wide receiverAndrew Hawkins
told Slate in 2016. But what they dont realize is [these issues are] more important to me than what anybodys public perception of me is when I give my opinion.
Hawkins was one of the players who triggered the new wave of athlete protests, which predated Kaepernicks campaign, by wearing a shirt over his game jersey in 2014 that demanded justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford, both black males shot by police while holding toy guns. Even before that, in 2012, the Miami Heat took a team photo in black hoodies as a tribute to the Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, an unprecedented move at the time.
But none of these Black Lives Matter inspired-efforts by athletes carried quite the same impact as what Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, started in August 2016 when he began sitting, and then kneeling, for the national anthem in protest against police violence. Kaepernicks actions spurred the same type of vitriol and the same wave of solidarity that Ali generated all those years ago.
There hasnt been a moment where youve had a photo op that came to that, where you have had a photo of Colin Kaepernick surrounded by LeBron James and Michael and Martellus Bennett, Gregg Popovich and so on, but de facto youve had the same thing, said the Columbia Journalism School professor Samuel Freedman. Theres really been a rallying around [Kaepernick].
The rallying, timid at first, peaked after Kaepernick became the object of Donald Trumps abuse late last month, when Trump, without naming him,
suggested the quarterback was a son of a bitch at an Alabama rally for his refusal to stand for the national anthem. It was a popular sentiment with the Trump supporters in attendance, and with white Americans in general, according to polling.
But Trumps ire only managed to
make the protests more popular. Increasingly, the kneeling protests have become adopted not just in the NFL, but among various soccer clubs, the WNBA, and youth sports teams, all while Kaepernick remains apparently toxic to NFL owners and the GMs who decide which players make the roster.
Thus, the once (briefly)
best-paid QB in the NFL has become equal parts folk hero and pariah in much the same way Ali polarized Americans during the 1960s. Kaepernick is the only player currently, and maybe ever, to have jersey sales in the leagues top 40 while not even signed to a team. Indeed, his jersey has come to be more associated with black consciousness and activism than football, with many non-fans of his former team, or even the game, seeking it out, mirroring a broader trend among his overall fanbase. A courageous, prophetic, self-sacrificial act
Activists protest in support of Colin Kaepernick. Photograph: M Stan Reaves/Rex/Shutterstock
In 1962, the season after his unceremonious dismissal from the Patriots, Beach caught on with the Cleveland Browns where he met Brown and he said his experience was much the same. He said the team held him for years in a sort of roster limbo: placing him on waivers, which would allow another team to sign him, and then retracting the waivers when another team tried to.
Beach is convinced this roster trickery was intended to achieve one purpose alone. I was a liability. I was one of those individuals that struggled against racism all the time. They wanted to blackball me and thats precisely what they doing to Kaepernick.
filed suit against the NFL earlier this week, accusing the leagues owners of colluding to deny him employment due to his polarizing demonstration.
Beach also sued. And won. He had years of service added to his pension on the grounds that, had the team allowed him to sign on elsewhere, he could have played longer.
But what remains to be seen is whether the energy that players have collected in the Trump era can translate into something as unified in message as the Ali Summit, or even more. If it does, players like Kaepernick may never have to worry about whether their vocal stances on social issues will leave them unemployed.
I think the symbolic points been made, and I think the open question is what the players do with the social power that theyve achieved, said Freedman, who wrote the book Breaking the Line, about the intersection of college football and the civil rights movement.
Last week, the Los Angeles Chargers tackle Russell Okung proposed essentially a 21st-century summit, allowing players to unite behind a single narrative.
I am convinced that we will never make progress if we do not find a way to come together and take action that represents the will of the players, he wrote
in an open letter to his colleagues.
As Kaps message has now been distorted, co-opted and used to further divide us along the very racial lines he was highlighting, we as players have a responsibility to come together and respond collectively.
Okung said he had initially been skeptical of Kaepernicks tactics but wrote: There is now no doubt in my mind that what he did last season was a courageous, prophetic, self-sacrificial act that has captivated a nation and inspired a powerful movement.
If I had his cellphone number, I would tell him that.
If what hes proposing comes to fruition, and if history is any guide, maybe hell get to tell him in person instead.