By Lisa Pryor
On April 15, 1947, Jack Roosevelt Robinson—or Jackie, as most people know him—changed the game of baseball by stepping onto Ebbets Field as a Brooklyn Dodger. He became the first Black player to play in a Major League Baseball game. This happened in 1947, only 76 years ago.
I have always been fascinated with Jackie Robinson, not just the incredibly skilled baseball player but the person. What kind of strength and character must a person have to endure what Jackie Robinson did during his professional career? Legendary Hall of Famer Hank Aaron said, “Jackie’s character was much more important than his batting average.”
If you’ve ever seen the movie 42 starring the iconic Chadwick Boseman, you can get a feel for what Jackie Robinson dealt with, especially at the beginning of his career. The real kicker for me was always the fact that if Jackie Robinson retaliated in any way, through actions or even verbally, his contract would end immediately. People screamed the N-word and other horrible things at this man every day, and if he even so much as looked upset, he would get fired. Make that make sense.
Sport hasn’t always been kind to everyone. Let’s be clear, it isn’t sport: it’s the people participating in and watching sports that are not always kind. There are too many stories to even begin to count, in every single sport, that would indicate that sports are not always welcoming and accepting of everyone. But there are also an incredible number of stories about individuals and teams who have used sports as the platform to stand up and speak out about the injustices happening in our country and around the world.
I’m from Ohio, and there is one thing that is almost a prerequisite to being in our family: one must be a fan of The Ohio State University. Okay, we are a big football family and there are lots of football players I could highlight here, but I’m going to go in a different direction. I want to talk about Jesse Owens. In 1936, the Olympic Games were held in Berlin, Germany. Think about what was going on in the world at that time. What do you know? That’s right, Hitler was in power then and planned to use the Olympic Games to show the superiority of the Aryan race. Except Jesse Owens won four gold medals in track and field, a record that stood for nearly 50 years. What kind of courage must it have taken for Jesse Owens to not only go to the Games in Berlin, but to also be so dominant? There are lots of movies about Jesse Owens. My favorite one is Race. Check it out sometime!
At that time, I believe Jesse Owens engaged in his own kind of protest: he won. He won every gold medal he could. But it was a different time then, and things would begin to change.
Moving on in history, we come to the year 1967, when the boxer formally known as Cassius Clay—who is better known as Muhammad Ali after converting to Islam—refuses to be inducted into the United States Army to go fight in the Vietnam War, citing religious reasons. At the time, Muhammad Ali was the heavyweight champion of the world. He was globally beloved and respected and his refusal cost him his title, a suspension from boxing (his primary means of income), a $10,000 fine (that’s about $1,000,000 today), and a five-year prison sentence. Despite all this, Ali refused and in a press conference he said this: “Why should me and other so-called Negroes go 10,000 miles away from home here in America to drop bombs and bullets on other innocent brown people who’s never bothered us? And, I will say directly, no, I will not go 10,000 miles to help kill innocent people.”
Ali took a huge risk by standing up for what he believed in. If you aren’t familiar with what happened to Ali’s career after this, you should certainly do some research. I am a huge fan of the Muhammad Ali Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. Will Smith did a great job portraying Muhammad Ali in the film Ali, as well.
I am going to fast forward about 50 years. Not to diminish anyone or anything that happened in that time frame, but I want to look at another individual who, according to the powerful Nike ad campaign, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” risked it all. Colin Kaepernick. On September 1, 2016, Colin Kapernick, decided to kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality. The decision to kneel came after a conversation with Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and former NFL player, who suggested that kneeling was more respectful than sitting. Kaepernick’s kneeling was labeled by individuals as un-American and un-patriotic. People said he was “disrespecting the flag” and that he should be fired (which, essentially, he was). It has been over 2,100 days since Colin Kaepernick has played in an NFL game. In this time, he has partnered with Ava DuVernay to create a mini documentary series, called Colin in Black and White, to break down some of the stereotypes and micro- and macroaggressions he encountered growing up in his adoptive white family. (It’s available on Netflix.) He also founded and helped fund three organizations to help advance the liberation of Black and Brown people. After 2,100 days, Colin Kaepernick would still love to play football. His decision to sacrifice his love of the game for justice is one that I truly admire.
Standing up for justice is not something that only men do. Have you ever heard of the legendary Billie Jean King? If you watch any tennis, I hope you know who BJK is. Michelle Obama paid tribute to Billie Jean King at this year’s US Open, which celebrated 50 years of equal pay for men and women, largely due to King’s influence after the Battle of the Sexes match she played in against Bobby Riggs in 1973. King won in three straight sets in front of an estimated 90 million people worldwide. Her win forever changed the narrative about women in sport, especially women’s tennis.
Quoting Coretta Scott King in her speech at the US Open, Billie Jean King said: “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and you win it in every generation.” This reminds me of the ongoing battle the US Women’s Soccer team endured to receive equal pay to the men’s team. Even after the struggle 50 years ago, some of us are still fighting the same battles. I am encouraged because they fought and refused to back down, eventually earning the very thing they deserved all along.
Justice doesn’t just look like money. Justice very much looks like the right to safety. This is what the United States Women’s Gymnastics team was fighting for. Safety to not be violated by the individuals who were charged to care for them physically by keeping them healthy. The courage of Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, and Maggie Nichols to give testimonies against a man who sexually abused them will ensure the safety of hundreds, if not thousands of young athletes that will come after them.
“When things lie in the balance, we all have a choice to make.”—Michelle Obama
I am so proud to be an athlete. Proud to stand with those who refuse to “shut up and dribble” as LeBron James was instructed to do after speaking out in regard to injustice and police brutality.
Those who change the narrative. Those who challenge the status quo. Those who demand more. Those who refuse to back down and instead step up, make themselves bigger, louder, and more intentional about using their platform—and therefore making it a platform for justice. Look at what has and is happening all over the professional sports scene. From Black Lives Matter on the court for men’s and women’s basketball, to end racism in every endzone in the NFL, to Jackie Robinson Day in the MLB. The many teams and players who chose not to play their respective matches and games during the COVID bubble days in protest of racism.
From 1968 when Tommie Smith and John Carlos protested on the medal stand at the Olympics to Dawn Staley holding reporters accountable for calling her players thugs, monkeys, and bar fighters. From Glenn Burke, Jason Collins, and Michael Sam to Megan Rapinoe, Brittney Griner, and Dwayne Wade.
No, we won’t “shut up and dribble,” or run, or skate, or hit, or kick, or swim, or jump, or anything unless you can shut up and listen, think, and be accountable for your actions. These are the choices we have to continue to make when everything lies in the balance.
What kind of strength and character must a person have to believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything? Whatever kind it is, I want to be that person.
What choice will you make?
How do you stand up for justice? How do you use your platform? How do you DEI?
About the Author:
Lisa Pryor has dedicated her entire adult life to creating safe spaces for all people. She is a dynamic speaker and workshop presenter who loves the challenge of being in front of a few or thousands. She has been trained by the NAIS Diversity Leadership program and the Art of Hosting for Participatory
Leadership. She earned a certificate from NESTA for Sports Psychology and trained with Accomplishment Coaching for her life coaching certification. Prior to her work with Indy Equity Collaborative, Lisa educated and coached over 1,200 students from 3 years old to seniors in high school. While she served as the Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for a local school in Indianapolis, she
challenged herself and the entire community to working towards becoming a place where everyone knows they belong. This is the same charge Lisa brings to everyone she works with.
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