January 3, 2017 | Posted in ASH Online

By Aaron Magunna

In 2016, the quarterback of the NFL (National Football League) team San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, refused to stand up for the national anthem during a preseason game. After receiving rigid criticism for the refusal (videos emerged showing fans burning Kaepernick’s shirt, Kaepernick received death threats and an anonymous NFL executive called him a ‘traitor’), Kaepernick stated: 

“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 streets and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Kaepernick referred to the police brutality conducted against African Americans and the subsequent emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. The NFL has been used as a pivotal stage for civil rights activism in the past. One particular person, and one particular team, has been involved in remarkable fashion in the fight for a more just US society: Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders.

Allen Davis, better known as ‘Al’ Davis, took charge of the Raiders in 1963 and is still perceived to be a cult figure in Oakland until this very day. Davis, who passed away in 2011, was a respected head coach, but was also renowned for his fierce stance against racial oppression and discrimination.

During Davis’ time as a head coach, one particular incident outlined his activism and his opposition to discrimination in the US. When the Raiders travelled to a match in Mobile, Alabama, in 1963, Davis refused to field his team because of laws that implemented racial segregation at that time. He demanded the game to be played in the rather liberal Oakland and ultimately refused to send his team to play in cities that demanded the segregation of white and African American players, for instance in terms of accommodation.

Al Davis at a Raiders press-conference in 2004. Picture from CBSnews.com. Original photo by Justin Sullivan.

Davis continued his activism when he eventually took over the Raiders as a part owner in 1972. Him being in charge saw the Raiders become the first franchise to employ the first African-American head coach in NFL history (Art Shell from 1989 to 1994) and the first female Chief Executive in NFL history (Amy Trask from 1997 to 2013).

Davis’ activism was not only closely associated with the Raiders as a franchise, but also with the city of Oakland (California). Known to be a city with a historically high crime rate and deeply implemented issues of racial zoning, the Raiders became a team for the socially disadvantaged. The most active fan group of the Raiders, Raider Nation, is consequently known for its close association to the working class of the entire Bay Area and its ethnically diverse fan base.

The Raiders are the team that is the most well-known for its activism for civil rights and the rights of African-Americans in particular. They are, however, not the only franchise that openly criticized the police violence conducted against African Americans. When Michael Brown was infamously shot in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, five players of the St. Louis Rams came out of the tunnel with their hands raised as a display of solidarity.

The St. Louis Rams show solidarity with the victims of police brutality in 2014. Picture from USnews.com. Original photo by L.G. Patterson.

When Colin Kaepernick decided to take a stand against the contemporary racial disparity by not rising for the national anthem, he received harsh criticism, often with an underlying racist tone. He certainly incited a lot of activism with his refusal: numerous NFL players started using the Black Panther greeting (a raised fist) instead of locking up arms with their teammates before the start of the game. Jeremy Lane from the Seattle Seahawks argued: “It’s something I plan to keep on doing until justice is served.” The incident also sparked protests in other professional sports in the US: female soccer star Megan Rapinoe started kneeling when the national anthem was played. Basketball stars such as LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers) and Kobe Bryant (L.A. Lakers) started warming up in shirts saying “I can’t breathe,” protesting the shooting of Eric Garner in New York City.

Kaepernick is in line with other individuals in professional US sports leagues that stood up for civil rights. The NFL has nonetheless a very distinctive history in the fight for a more equal US society. This is pivotally connected to the high amount of African Americans professionals in the sport and also the activism that was imposed by individuals such as Al Davis, and, currently, Colin Kaepernick. Figures such as Davis and Kaepernick have henceforth been essential to raising a broader awareness for the struggle against discrimination and oppression. They stood up for something that was and is a lot bigger than themselves and deserve the upmost respect for doing that.