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Why Athletes Have the Power to Change History

On Wednesday, Michael Bennett, a defensive end for the Seattle Seahawks, posted a letter about his arrest in Las Vegas to Twitter claiming that the police had used an excessive amount of force to detain him. He is looking to sue the Las Vegas police for their unjust treatment of him during the incident.

Every football fan is familiar with Colin Kaepernick’s choice to sit down during the national anthem to protest inequality in the United States. Or JJ Watt helping to raise $28 million for Hurricane Harvey relief.

This isn’t a new trend in the world of professional athletics. Athletes have been standing up against inequality and using their status to inflict a positive change in the world for as long as sports have been a major industry.

Jackie Robinson once said, “Life is not a spectator sport. . . . If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you’re wasting your life.” And Robinson was definitely not acting as a spectator. Back in a time when America was still dealing with segregation, he often wrote to the White House about civil rights matters such as in this letter written to President Eisenhower in 1958.

Muhammad Ali was also a known advocate for civil rights.  He was banned from competing in boxing  for a few years after refusing to join the ranks during the Vietnam War because of his disapproval of the idea of war. “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people – some poor hungry people in the mud – for big powerful America.” He stood with Martin Luther King Jr. (although, not initially) and even wrote a message of encouragement to him in prison. Muhammad Ali was also very charitable, visiting sick children and representing as a United Nations Member of Peace. He also aided in the release of United States hostages during the Gulf War.

Among other athletes that took a stand for equality were Tommie Smith and John Carlos. These Olympic athletes raised their hands in a symbol of black power and pride and wore black socks and no shoes as a symbol of black poverty as the National Anthem played while they stood on the medal stand (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). Initially, the two were met with a roaring disapproval of ‘boos’ from the stadium, death threats, and were even expelled from the Games. Today, a statue has been erected commemorating the event as a pivotal moment in the history of human rights activism, and Smith and Carlos have been awarded an  Arthur Ashe Courage Award to honor their protest.

Standing up for women’s rights was Katherine Switzer in the 1967 Boston Marathon. Roberta Gibb had run in the race first, but did not have an official race bib and had to hide in the bushes near the start of the race to run. Switzer signed up for the race without specifying that she was a woman. The Amateur Athletic Association discouraged women from participating since they believed their bodies could not endure the long distance exertion. While running the race, Switzer had to fend off race officials who tried to tear off her bib number and physically remove her from the race. She had help from her boyfriend who helped her get away from the official so she could finish the race. Switzer then opened the doors for women to take part in long distance running events and helped get the Olympics to include the women’s marathon as an official event.

Although at the time, these movements did not have much weight behind them, and they were often looked upon with disdain, our present has been changed by all of them. Athletes have long been using their position of power in society to make a change. Whether it’s being active in civil rights movements or garnering interest and support for charities, athletes can use their celebrity status to help make the world a better place. History shows that they should,