A college basketball player’s perspective: My thoughts on racism, kneeling

By Aaron Robinson

Part 1

October 2018 -- 50 years since U.S. sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith took a historic stand on the medal podium in Mexico City for the whole world to see.

 Aaron Robinson

Aaron Robinson

At the 1968 Summer Olympics, after winning gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter race, Smith and Carlos called it a “Human Rights Salute,” advocating for equal rights and representation in society as their white counterparts.

The International Olympic Committee expelled Smith and Carlos from the rest of the games and banned them from the Olympic Village.

The irony of the situation is that Avery Brundage, the president of the IOC,  was also IOC president at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin where many athletes gave a Nazi salute as they passed German chancellor Adolf Hitler throughout the Games.

No  suspensions.

No punishments.

Brundage said the salute was a national symbol at the time, that it was acceptable, but yet Carlos’ and Smith’s action was not.

Even knowing in 1968 that the salute supported the genocide of millions of Jewish people, Brundage determined that the fists of two black men merited suspension.

Fast forward to today’s climate in which Colin Kaepernick, a former starting quarterback who led his team all the way to the Super Bowl five years ago, is out of a job after kneeling during the national anthem before games.

Find out the hurdles athletes face when pursuing activism.

Why is he out of a job?

It has nothing to do with his talent as a quarterback that’s for sure. It is because he took a stand. It is because he decided to speak out against an issue that, for some, isn’t even an actual issue.

As a black athlete, I am here to tell you -- racial inequality in American is a real issue.

In an interview with NFL.com in 2016, Kaepernick said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

But of course, rather than admitting that police brutality was the root of the issue and facing it and addressing it, many people changed the narrative.

They tried to make it about the flag. They tried to say that Kaepernick showed disrespect toward the flag and American armed forces for not standing for the anthem.

 Colin Kaepernick takes a knee during the national anthem alongside his teammates during the 2016 NFL season. Kaepernick began his protest during the preseason in protest of police brutality and racial injustices against African Americans. (Flickr)

Colin Kaepernick takes a knee during the national anthem alongside his teammates during the 2016 NFL season. Kaepernick began his protest during the preseason in protest of police brutality and racial injustices against African Americans. (Flickr)

Kaepernick actually sat down with a member of the military before he began to kneel to discuss ways that he could protest without being disrespectful to those that fight for this country. The solution proposed by the soldier was to kneel. In the military, when a soldier dies or is injured during battle, members of the military keel to show respect to that individual.

From a sports perspective, whenever a player gets injured, everyone takes a knee while that player is down in order to show respect for that individual.

But the message became muddled.

In my opinion, the reason people are so upset is because Kaepernick -- as a black athlete -- took a stand against something that, quite frankly, the white NFL owners and the many white fans do not understand or experience.

They don’t care that cops get paid leave after killing unarmed black men over and over again.

They don’t care that the cops, if they go to trial, are often acquitted of charges for murder.

They don’t care that a black life is still not seen as equal to a white life in the eyes of many.

As long as nothing comes between them, their money and their entertainment on Sunday afternoons, they’re OK.

Plain and simply, they don’t want to hear from a football player. They want their ballplayers to be silent and content with the fact that he is a millionaire NFL quarterback.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Howard Bryant said, “They don’t want to hear from us. They want us to be grateful. They want us to be quiet. If you’re not rich then you’re a drain on the society, if you are rich, then what are you complaining about they want you to be grateful. They don’t want to hear from you at all.”

“Us,” of course, being African Americans, “they” being white Americans.

This narrative of the white public wanting black athletes to be silent was never more evident than in February when Fox News’ Laura Ingraham got on the air and suggested that basketball stars Lebron James and Kevin Durant should “shut up and dribble.”

This came directly after a segment aired with James and Durant sitting in the backseat of a car with ESPN anchor Cari Champion, and the three discussed President Donald Trump’s racist remarks.

Rather than address Trump’s racist and divisive comments, Ingraham condemned the athletes for even mentioning it. She then insulted the athletes, joking about their lack of intelligence and poor grammar. She attempted to slight their credibility to speak on politics because they are athletes who, according to her, “get paid 100 million dollars to dribble a ball.”

The idea to “shut up and dribble,” though, is that -- as Bryant, who recently published a book called “The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism,” points out -- it is ridiculous. Why? Because there has never been a time throughout our long history as a nation that black athletes have not been political.

“If you know your history, it was the white public and the white sports leagues that wanted black players to talk about politics in the first place,” Bryant said. “Who was asking Jesse Owens to get involved in politics against Hitler? It was the white media. Who was asking Jackie Robinson to get involved in politics? It was Branch Rickey and the Dodgers. It was white people asking black players to get involved.”

 Jackie Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey shake hands after agreeing to a contract back in 1948.

Jackie Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey shake hands after agreeing to a contract back in 1948.

Bryant also went on to talk about other black athletes, such as Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and O.J. Simpson, who have been criticized because of their lack of activism when it comes to politics and society.

Essentially, if you speak out, they’re mad at you. If you don’t speak out, they’re mad at you.

Bryant said, “They don’t want to hear from us at all. They want us to be silent and succumb to the oppression and the dehumanization of our people. They want us to be OK with our status in America and our lack of representation in society. They want us to accept the fact that there are black bodies in the streets and cops receiving paid leave only to eventually be acquitted of all charges.”

And that is exactly why we black athletes must speak.

We must use our voices to speak out and seek change because if we sit around and wait for the next person to make a change, we will be waiting for a cold day in hell.

Athletes have a voice and a platform that very few others have. It is absolutely essential that we, as black athletes, do not underestimate the power that we have.

We have the opportunity and the responsibility to be active members of our communities and to stand up for things that we believe in.

 Members of the Miami Heat wear hoodies in support of Trayvon Martin after he was gunned down by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer.

Members of the Miami Heat wear hoodies in support of Trayvon Martin after he was gunned down by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer.

Part 2

I think the majority of African Americans agree that things in this country right now, from a race relations point of view, are far from ideal.

Millions of people support Kaepernick on his stance against police brutality. You hear the conversations among athletes. You see the tweets.  

Yet, the number of people who are sitting and watching in silence far outnumbers the amount of people who are actually taking a knee, or protesting -- myself being one of them.

I am probably one of the most “woke” pro-black people you will find, but I haven't taken a knee yet. And to be honest, unless something drastic changes, I don’t know if I will this season either.

Why not?

Because I am a Division I college basketball player and I have seen what has happened to professional athletes who have spoken out. I watched Colin Kaepernick get exiled from the NFL. I watched all-pro safety Eric Reid suffer the same fate until just a few weeks ago when he was finally signed after a two-year hiatus. Carlos and Smith served as an example. Muhammed Ali was stripped of his title because he spoke out against the Vietnam War and refused to serve.

The lesson is this: Black athletes who speak out against issues like this get destroyed.

If I were to speak out, who is to say that my scholarship will not be taken away? Who says that my coaches don’t take away my playing time? Who says I do not get expelled from school?

All of these fears are very real for black athletes and these fears are magnified for college athletes.

Professional athletes such as Kaepernick and Reid had the opportunity to make millions of dollars prior to them ever taking a knee. They were set for life regardless of what the outcome of their protest was.

I am a broke college student who comes from nothing, so I have literally everything to lose in this situation. If I lose this scholarship, I lose everything that I have ever fought for in my entire life.