Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Why Martin Luther King Jr. would be happy to know that sports are still saving America

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with boxer Floyd Patterson, left, former baseball player Jackie Robinson, right, and civil rights leader Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, second from left, in 1963.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with boxer Floyd Patterson, left, former baseball player Jackie Robinson, right, and civil rights leader Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, second from left, in 1963.
Image: AP

If Martin Luther King Jr. hadn’t been assassinated by the predecessors of the political party that will misuse his quotes today, he’d have been 92, and I imagine rather pleased with the role that sports have played in society.

A man that was a true believer in acts of peaceful protest, like Colin Kaepernick, was one of the architects of bringing about change — unlike what we saw at the Capitol when American terrorists tried to overthrow our government all because they lost an election that was rigged in their favor through voter suppression.

Because if what happened to MLK at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in 1968 took place today, he would just be the latest unarmed Black man gunned down by a white man. Some athletes would kneel. Others would use their platforms to remind you that another Black Georgia native had been gunned down, just like Ahmaud Arbery.

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#MartinLutherKingJr.

To some, the turbulent and historic decade of the 1960s can seem so long ago. But when you think about the issues this country was dealing with then, they’re still the same ones we struggle with today – which includes the continued blackballing of certain Black athletes. Back then, King valued the Black athlete and their importance when it came to speaking out about social and racial issues. For instance, a quick Google search will show you pictures of King with Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson.

“He was a pilgrim that walked in the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides,” King once said of Robinson.

Surprisingly to some, King supported Ali in public and private, as he sent the young Cassius Clay a telegram before one of his fights, and stood up for him when he decided not to serve in the Vietnam War. “He’s doing what he’s doing on the basis of conscience,” said King in a news conference. “He’s absolutely sincere. I strongly endorse his actions.”

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Illustration for article titled Why Martin Luther King Jr. would be happy to know that sports are still saving America
Image: AP

And when Black athletes like Tommie Smith and John Carlos were trying to decide if they were going to boycott the 1968 Olympics, it was King who offered words of support just months before his death.

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“This is a protest and a struggle against racism and injustice and that is what we are working to eliminate in our organization and in our total struggle ... No one looking at these demands can ignore the truth of them. Freedom always demands sacrifice and ... they have the courage to say, ‘We’re going to be men and the United States of America have deprived us of our manhood, of our dignity and our native worth, and consequently we’re going to stand up and make the sacrifices ...”

In 2021, we watched as Raphael Warnock – the senior pastor at King’s church – became just the eleventh Black senator, and the first Black senator in Georgia’s history, largely due to how the athletes of the WNBA supported him.

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We’ve seen players like Renee Montgomery skip an entire season to work on social and racial causes, and Maya Moore hasn’t played since the 2018 season, due to spending her time freeing — then marrying — Jonathon Irons, the Black man that was spent over 20 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

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In King’s hometown of Atlanta, State Farm Arena and Mercedes-Benz Stadium served as polling locations so as to make voting easier in the state that has become the face of voter suppression. That doesn’t happen without the work that King and the rest of the foot soldiers from the Civil Rights Movement did that put pressure on Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act into law back 1965. It has led to the Patrick Mahomeses of the world and other athletes, of all colors, working with LeBron James’ “More Than a Vote” campaign.

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Martin Luther King Jr. was a man that stood with the ones that just wanted to be heard and treated as equals, which means he would have been hated today. That should never go unnoticed, especially since the people who disagreed with his nonviolent protests produced the sons and daughters that we saw storm the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Fifty-seven years after King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, it still remains absurdly clear that America has a long way to go before it will ever reach the place that he imagined. But despite that frustration, King would be energized and pleased with the work of athletes as the sports world has always been, and continues to be, an undefeated agent for change.

Saginaw Native. Morehouse Man. Syracuse (Newhouse) Alum. 2019 & 2020 NABJ Award Winner. 2016 PABJ Journalist of the Year. I only eat my wings lemon-peppered. And I like brown liquor & brown women.

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