10+ of the Most Prominent Sports Protests of All Time

newspaper front pages featuring Muhammad Ali

By Scott A. Leadingham

Few things are more unifying and polarizing than sports; so, too, are sports protests.

Sports teams and athletic leagues like the NBA or NFL are not bound by the First Amendment, since it applies only to government actions. But the ideals of the First Amendment that enable us to speak, express ourselves and protest freely are embedded throughout daily life, including in sports.

Like politics, sports have deep connections to our identities: where we grew up, how we were raised and who raised us. Sports are more than participating in or watching physical competitions, much like politics is more than just elections.

Whether professional, collegiate, high school or youth sports, our online lives are filled with examples of how the thrill of victory and agony of defeat resonate deeply and passionately well beyond the field of play.

Explore prominent sports protests from throughout history

If you’ve ever heard the criticism that a famous basketball player like LeBron James should “shut up and dribble” or something similar, you know the power of sports to captivate us and push conversations beyond who simply won or lost the big game.

Consider the recent push in some states to restrict trans athletes, particularly trans girls, from playing youth, high school and collegiate sports in accordance with their gender identity. Beyond concern about perceived athletic advantages in these policies, sports are often a proxy for wider social debate and commentary.

In the past 100 years, there are numerous examples of athletes using their platforms to do much more than make big plays and sell jerseys. Sports protests are common ways for athletes to highlight and elevate important and divisive social causes.

Consider some of these prominent sports protests and how they shaped conversations far beyond the final buzzer.

Muhammad Ali and conscientious objectors (1967)

Known for his brashness and bravado as much as his boxing, Muhammad Ali was perhaps destined to rise to the level of social provocateur and maligned villain. His in-your-face persona and proclamation that he was “the greatest” made him an ideal athlete to spark controversy. That he had joined the Nation of Islam in 1964 and changed his name from Cassius Clay also made him a polarizing figure.

In 1967 during the height of the Vietnam War, Ali refused to serve in the U.S. military, citing religious reasons. The World Boxing Association vacated his heavyweight title and banned him for four years. The U.S. draft board denied his religious exemption, giving him a penalty of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. He appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1971 ruled in Ali’s favor. The court said he had a First Amendment religious freedom right not to serve.

Ali’s refusal to join the military at a time when U.S. law required it elevated the legal and social conversation about conscientious objectors refusing military service. During World War II, prominent athletes like baseball players Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio joined the U.S. military to great acclaim. But the Vietnam War was a much different war, geopolitically and domestically. Ali was a divisive and famous sports figure before his conscientious objector case. When he chose not to join the military, citing his religious objection, he used his existing platform to advance a wider conversation about religious freedom that applies to every person in the U.S.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Olympics (1968)

The Civil Rights Movement saw plenty of protests in cities across the U.S. But at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, the domestic issues of a northern neighbor were on full display.

As Black Americans, U.S. track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos were outspoken about their support of the Civil Rights Movement and human rights around the world.

During the medal ceremony for the 200-meter sprint event, for which Smith won gold and Carlos won bronze, the pair made several visible gestures supporting Black empowerment and human rights. Both wore black socks and no shoes, highlighting Black poverty. They wore human rights pins on their jackets, along with silver medalist Peter Norman of Australia.

Most controversially, Smith and Carlos donned black gloves and raised their fists in the air during the playing of the U.S. national anthem, a gesture largely perceived as the Black Power salute.

“We decided to use our athleticism to be a voice for people who were voiceless,” Carlos said in 2015, noting that he and Smith thought about boycotting the Olympics in 1968 but decided instead to elevate the cause of Black and human rights on a world stage.

In the Olympic stadium and back home following the games, Smith and Carlos faced boos, ostracism from athletics, and death threats. Decades later, though, many consider them athletic role models who stood up in silent protest and used their platform to highlight a cause in which they believed.

U.S. boycott of Moscow Olympics (1980)

The overt purpose of the Olympics is sports competition. But embedded in them is the wider issue of global diplomacy. If the Olympics were solely about sports, why do so many countries use them to launch their own protests?

In 1980, the Soviet Union (now Russia) was about to host summer games in Moscow. In addition to the Cold War with the United States, the Soviet Union was invading Afghanistan. The U.S. led a boycott of the summer games, joined by more than 60 countries.

Four years later, in 1984, it was the United States’ turn to host the summer games in Los Angeles. The Soviet Union led a boycott of 14 countries, including East Germany.

More recently, games held in both China (2008, 2022) and Russia (2014) have prompted threats of boycotts or other condemnation by countries and athletes over the host countries’ political, military and human rights actions.

Colin Kaepernick and U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (2016)

When NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to sit and later kneel during the national anthem in 2016, he probably didn’t realize the firestorm and years of debate it would spark.

Kaepernick said he sat to protest police violence against Black people. Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret and fellow NFL player told Kaepernick it would be more respectful to take a knee, and Kaepernick agreed.

The Freedom Forum recapped a recent event with Boyer:

“Taking a knee didn't stop the blowback for Kaepernick. If anything, it made the protest more visible, obvious and easy to emulate for other athletes, like members of the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team. It also inflamed years of culture war back-and-forth among politicians and garnered heavy media coverage and criticism. It also effectively ended Kaepernick's NFL career; though the First Amendment prohibits government from punishing expressions like Kaepernick's, private employers like the NFL and its teams are not bound by the First Amendment.”

Kaepernick and the Women’s National Soccer Team both received plenty of criticism for their actions in 2016 and beyond.

When the U.S. Women’s National Team had an earlier-than-hoped exit from the World Cup in 2023, many people (including former President Donald Trump) blamed their “woke” political stances and support for LGBTQ+ causes, saying they were distracted from their job on the field. The team, led by Megan Rapinoe, also protested their unequal pay compared to the less-successful U.S. Men’s National Team. This protest brought them plenty of criticism but was ultimately successful in boosting their pay and the profile of sports protests.

LeBron James, Milwaukee Bucks and Black Lives Matter (2020)

LeBron James is nicknamed King James for his dominance on the court. He came into the NBA straight from high school in 2003, a hoped-for generational megastar the same year Michael Jordan retired (for a third time).

Like Jordan, James has been a high-profile star, winning four NBA championships in 20 seasons. But unlike Jordan, James has used his platform to advocate for Black people and protest their treatment by police. In 2018, James attracted the ire of Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who said on her popular primetime program that he should “shut up and dribble.”

NPR reported at the time, “Ingraham said she was not interested in the political advice from ‘someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball.’”

 

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James hasn’t backed down from speaking his mind on social issues. In 2020, as protests for racial justice followed the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, James posted on Twitter: “Why doesn’t America love us?” He had previously worn a T-shirt during game warmups reading “I Can’t Breathe,” a reference to the 2014 death of Eric Garner in New York City.

James was far from the only athlete who participated in sports protests or other gatherings in 2020 related to racial justice.

In August 2020, the entire Milwaukee Bucks team refused to play a playoff game after Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot by a police officer in Kenosha, Wis., prompting several nights of protests and riots. Other teams across the NBA and in Major League Baseball followed suit.

As NPR reported, “James, with 47 million Twitter followers, spoke for many athletes when he tweeted an expletive, and then this: ‘WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT.’”

Baseball, hockey and Pride

During Pride Month in June, many cities celebrate LGBTQ+ history and the anniversary of the Stonewall Inn riots in 1969. As Pride becomes more mainstream (and commercialized), sports leagues have faced pressure from LGBTQ+ advocacy groups and supporters to be more inclusive. But some male-dominated sports leagues, like the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, haven’t been as welcoming to LGBTQ+ players and fans compared to other areas of society (like the performing arts).

Sports leagues like Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League have started Pride Night promotions at games, including fireworks displays and honoring LGBTQ+ groups in communities where teams play. Some teams and leagues have required all players to wear a Pride-themed jersey or patch. That’s where diversity and inclusivity have bumped up with free speech and religious freedom in recent years.

In 2023, multiple NHL players refused to wear Pride-themed jerseys or otherwise participate in Pride Night events before games. Florida Panthers players and brothers Eric and Marc Staal cited their Christian beliefs as reason for not participating. Some Russian players cited Orthodox Christian beliefs. The Chicago Blackhawks opted not to have players wear Pride jerseys, citing pressure that Russian players faced at home considering the country’s laws targeting LGBTQ+ people. That led one journalist for pro-LGBTQ+ sports site Outsports to say several NHL teams were using Russia as a convenient excuse; other Russian NHL players did support Pride Night events and donned jerseys.

In the MLB, players like Julio Rodriguez and his Seattle Mariners have supported Pride Night and its associated events while other players have protested their teams’ associations with the event. In 2022, five pitchers for the Tampa Bay Rays refused to wear Pride-themed patches on their jerseys, citing religious objections.

The Los Angeles Dodgers’ 2023 Pride Night promotion was set to honor the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a drag-based satirical community service and advocacy group that takes its theme from Catholic nuns. Backlash caused the Dodgers to disinvite the sisters. The backlash to the backlash caused the Dodgers to re-invite the Sisters and apologize. People outside the stadium protested during the ceremony, saying the sisters group is sacrilegious and disrespectful of real Catholic nuns.

As of 2023, all 30 MLB teams, except the Texas Rangers, had some kind of Pride-themed event.

Sports protests highlight and ignite debate

Athletes don’t leave their First Amendment freedoms secured in the locker room. When they use their platforms and prominence to protest, they remind us of what it means to live in a country where these ideas are vigorously discussed.

Next time you hear someone say an athlete should “shut up and play,” it’s worth reminding them that free speech isn’t a right or concept reserved for certain people or professions. That undercuts the very idea of speech being free and unrestricted.

The same First Amendment ideals that ensure people’s right to criticize athletes’ sports protests (or politicians’ policies) buoy athletes to use their platform to advance a cause. Athletes leading sports protests are draining a clutch shot to elevate, highlight and ignite conversations around what the First Amendment is and why it’s an important goal to defend.

Scott A. Leadingham is a Freedom Forum staff writer. On X/Twitter: @scottleadingham

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