ESPN sports journalist discusses athletic protests during lecture
Claire Lyons | Monday, October 11, 2021
The Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights hosted sports journalist Howard Bryant, who spoke about the legacy of athletic protests for its online lecture series, “Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary” on Friday.
The series is led by Dory Mitros Durham, associate director of the Klau Center and leader of the Keough School of Global Affairs’s Racial Justice Initiative, as a response to the acts of police brutality against George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor in 2020.
The program’s goal is to provide “students, faculty, staff and alumni of the University of Notre Dame with sustained, critical engagement on interdisciplinary topics related to understanding systematic racism, and committing to the daily work of anti-racism.”
Bryant is an author, sports journalist, senior writer and columnist for ESPN. He is also a sports correspondent for The Sports Reporters talk show with ESPN and for Weekend Edition with NPR. He has written five books including “The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism” and “Full Dissidence: Notes from an Uneven Playing Field.”
Bryant began the lecture by discussing the history of politics in sports. He noted that it goes back as far back as the 1936 Olympics where Black sprinters like Jesse Owens and Mack Robinson “denounced the idea of white superiority which was obviously what Hitler was pushing.” Bryant referred to this is “the start of what I refer to as ‘The Heritage,’” which Bryant explained is a tradition of athletes using sports as an arena to make a political statement.
Noting that the impact of sports on politics was “obvious,” Bryant noted that a problem came when “Black athletes themselves took the agency” to talk about racial injustice.
Bryant continued by speaking about how Tommie Smith and John Carlos sacrificed their careers at the 1968 Olympics for raising their fists in the air on the Olympic podium as a sign of black solidarity.
“The fact that the Olympic Committee came down on Tommie Smith and John Carlos, just for that gesture, for the simple expression, tell you how much it meant,” he said.
Bryant asked the audience, “Why have we set up the dynamic that you risk everything just for supporting Black people?”
Despite this legacy of protest, some sports fans don’t want to see politics during games. Bryant says that there isn’t a difference between the protest we see demonstrated by Black athletes and the patriotism we see on the field. After 9/11, Bryant claims that patriotism was brought “into the ballpark full time.” He questioned why people don’t treat playing the national anthem “as if it’s not political.”
Bryant thinks America set patriotism and protest against each other. Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the anthem shouldn’t be framed as disrespectful to the flag or unpatriotic, he said. He argues that people shouldn’t frame protest as unpatriotic, but as a byproduct of patriotism.
He expands on this issue by exploring the activism people see in sports today. He asks, “What happens when the protester becomes the power?” Howard doesn’t think we should attribute their individual wealth — like Lebron James’ net worth of $50 million — to actual activism.
“Athletes are reaching a point where they are representing what they were protesting five years ago,” he said. Athletes are now the people in the board rooms making decisions about sports teams.
Bryant questioned the future of sports activism, asking “Are athletes using their power for collective action or are they simply building their fortunes and empires?” He urged athletes to focus on the bigger picture rather than themselves.
Anyone interested in hearing more from upcoming speakers at the “Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary” lecture series can register online at the Klau Center’s website.