“Art is about aesthetics, about morals, about our beliefs in humanity. Without that there is simply no art.”
- Ai Weiwei
For decades, sports have been a uniquely powerful unifying force across the United States. Playing sports and cheering for a favorite team both invite athletes and fans to be included in a distinct community. Sports fandom offers people the opportunity to take part in a communal competition that is seemingly detached from “real world” issues. But athletes, coaches, team administrators and league officials are actors in the “real world” and thus this detachment can never truly be complete. When professional athletes use their platform to make bold political statements they rupture the unifying fabric of sports fandom. These instances of rupture and tension are exceptionally powerful.
The derivation of WonderRoot’s name stems directly from the power of such moments. At WonderRoot, we believe that lasting change occurs at tension points: where the imaginative visioning, the “wondering” of what a better world could look like meets the gritty, methodical, “rooted” day-to-day work of organizing the progress we demand.
Ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s bold statement to kneel during the pre-game national anthem two years ago has ignited a massive and vicious controversy that shows no signs of resolution any time soon. In a media session shortly after his first game kneeling, Kaepernick explained his decision, “People don’t realize what’s really going on in this country. There are a lot things that are going on that are unjust. People aren’t being held accountable for. And that’s something that needs to change. That’s something that this country stands for freedom, liberty and justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.” (via NinersWire).
The gesture of kneeling on the field is a common one in NFL arenas. Players often take a knee when a teammate or a player on the opposing team is injured to express respect or concern. Seven years ago Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow’s practice of “kneeling in prayerful reflection” on the sidelines and on the field during games created a whole cultural phenomenon called “tebowing.” Tebow’s playful internet craze stands in stark contrast to the aftermath of Kaepernick’s gesture: less than a month after Kaepernick kneels he is voted the most disliked player in the NFL. Since that gesture and that statement, Kaepernick has become a pariah to some and a messiah to others. There have been a firestorm of tweets, articles, actions (and lack thereof), and conversations surrounding Kaepernick, the anthem, free speech, patriotism and the NFL and they illustrate the conflicting views of the American public on the topic.
But here is where we must focus: Kaepernick felt this grave, relentless injustice and he saw his opportunity to make a statement. Using only his body and his personal space, he choreographed an action and statement meant to call attention to this issue and in this sense, it worked. As Noelle Hurd, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia said while being interviewed by the New York Times, “It’s not just being black but being male that has been hyper-stereotyped in this negative way, in which we’ve made black men scary, intimidating, with a propensity toward violence.” This is a dangerous stereotype that has led to the unjust incarceration, poverty, and death of many men of color, disproportionately black men. In some ways Kaepernick reclaimed the tightly regulated space that is afforded to black men. Between the kick off and the final whistle, Kaepernick has been exalted for using his body to compete in the game of football, but when he used his body to address injustice he was vilified.
Zooming out from this current moment, Kaepernick’s protest is one piece of a long legacy of athletes using the platform afforded to them through their profession to make gestures of protest against segregation, war, gender discrimination, police brutality, homophobia and many other social issues. WonderRoot is inspired by the legacy of professional athletes using gestures of protest and civil disobedience to disrupt the status quo and advance social justice movements. In the midst of the discourse ignited by Kaepernick’s knee, we answer the call to action by expressing support and solidarity with those who choose to put their career and livelihood in jeopardy to speak out against violent injustice in our society, in Kaepernick’s case specifically regarding police brutality and systemic violence against black and brown men.
It is no stretch to understand the on-site protests of athletes as works of performance art. In an article exploring the concept and dimensions of what is considered “performance art,” art historian Jonah Westerman argues that “performance is not (and never was) a medium, not something that an artwork can be but rather a set of questions and concerns about how art relates to people and the wider social world.” Like Kaepernick, contemporary artist Dread Scott has addressed similar issues of anti-black racism through his performance works. In one performance, Dread Scott carried a sign reading “I Am Not A Man”–importantly inverting the historical protest sign. For professional athletes with a set of questions and concerns about how their work relates to people and the wider social world, the primary space they have to express these concerns is in the highly visible margins of their athletic achievements:
- 1960 Clarksville, TN: Olympic Medalist Wilma Rudolph refuses to attend her hometown’s segregated celebration parade.
- 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City: Medalists Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos raise their gloved fists on the medal stand during the U.S. national anthem.
- 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany: Medalists Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett refuse to participate in the U.S. national anthem.
- 1996 NBA season: Denver Nugget’s player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf remains seated for pre-game national anthem.
- 2004 MLB season: Toronto Blue Jay’s player Carlos Delgado remains seated in dugout during “God Bless America”
- 2012 NBA season: Miami Heat pose for photo in hooded sweatshirts following the murder of Trayvon Martin.
- 2016 WNBA season: Players on Indiana Fever, New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury wear black warm up shirts prior to tip off.
- 2016 US Women’s National Soccer Team: Megan Rapinoe kneels during national anthem.
WonderRoot unequivocally supports these gestures made by courageous community leaders who have used their platforms intentionally to demand a better world — especially considering the backlash, the fines, and the hatred that these leaders open themselves up to by choosing to protest. WonderRoot’s theory of change identifies three interconnected arenas in which lasting social change takes shape: personal transformation, public discourse, and policy. Gestures of protest like taking a knee, raising a fist, or altering a uniform are crucial for creating the moments of tension that change hearts and minds, shift our terms of conversation, and ultimately alter institutions and policy.
*In understanding these gestures by professional athletes as performance art we do not seek to gloss over or minimize the countless artists who have devoted entire careers to the pursuit of social justice. To learn more about how artists have used their craft in protest and civil disobedience, read our blog post here and explore the Whitney Museum’s “Incomplete History of Protest” exhibit.