“History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals.” -James Baldwin
The Eagles have celebrated their first national championship since 1960 and their first Super Bowl victory. Although I chose not to watch a single game this year, and harbored secret hopes that the Eagles would sign Kaepernick, I was happy to read about the growing activism of members of the Eagles.
Activism by professional athletes is an important part of our legacy as Americans. Sports is not immune to the views of its participants. The platform of professional sports lends itself to those who want to take stances on larger social issues, whatever their viewpoint. It is no secret that many NFL owners are staunch Republicans; the Patriots’ Tom Brady and his coach, Bill Belichick, made it plain to the team and the league where they stood. There have been athletes who snubbed invitations to visit Pres. Obama when he was in the White House.
Even a cursory look at Black History can help people understand the role that athletes have played to call out oppression and bring about social change. Malcolm Jenkins, Lane Johnson, Chris Long, and others have protested police violence during the national anthem, engaged policy makers, and donated money to our cash-strapped district that is still suffering from our state legislature’s inequitable decisions in school funding.
All-year long, Safety Malcolm Jenkins has been writing columns for The Philadelphia Citizen, some of which I distributed to our students. Working to elevate awareness of the massive injustices in Philadelphia’s and America’s criminal justice system, Jenkins not only wrote, but also traveled with Long and others to Harrisburg to promote legislation that could give low-level nonviolent offenders a “Clean Slate” to support them in being able to work and contribute to society. Jenkins joined Black Lives Matter activists in lobbying for bail system reform and demanded that our state end the life without parole sentencing for juveniles.
It was really hard this particular season to boycott the NFL, especially as the Super Bowl march became evident. I told my kids and students, if I can’t have the discipline to stick to a decision as easy as turning off a TV, how in the world could I model discipline at all?
Sports provides myriad opportunities for conscious educators to discuss how athletes who have embraced activism use their platforms to resist America’s racism and white supremacy—publicly and loudly. Educators can use lessons to help students notice the patterns of racism, bigotry, and inequity, and help them to dismantle it.
For example, you’d be hard pressed to find a Black person who was shocked that after the Eagles won the Super Bowl and some white people were seen “celebrating” like some type of fanatics, they weren’t met with tanks, tear gas, and violence. Juxtapose that image with one of Black people protesting the state sanctioned murder of unarmed Black people by police in the streets of this country. As Black Lives Matter President (New York) Hawk Newsome told Newsweek: “Somehow, it seems there’s a line drawn in the sand where destruction of property because of a sports victory is OK and acceptable in America. However, if you have people who are fighting for their most basic human right, the right to live, they will be condemned.”
While our students are growing up hearing #45 call any athlete who protested police violence during an anthem (that wasn’t created for the nation, but solely for land owning White men) a “son of a bitch” who should be fired, resisters of all shape and professions have to step up.
As a lifelong Eagles fan, it was really hard this particular season to boycott the NFL, especially as the Super Bowl march became evident. But, it was important to me that I stand with folks protesting systemic racism and oppression over my personal entertainment. My kids and students asked if I was at least going to watch the playoffs. When the Eagles progressed, they asked would I watch the Super Bowl. I told them if I can’t have the discipline to stick to a decision as easy as turning off a TV, how in the world could I model discipline at all?
You’d be hard pressed to find a Black person who was shocked that after the Eagles won the Super Bowl and some white people were seen “celebrating” like some type of fanatics, they weren’t met with tanks, tear gas, and violence.
Educators and activists play a role in ensuring students are on the school-to-activism pipeline. This can be done by diving into conversations that help them to connect the dots, learn from others’ experiences, and practice activism in their own ways. Just like racism and apathy aren’t just images and words in history textbooks, neither is the activism of some professional athletes.
I don’t know if the boycott made a difference. The NFL eventually negotiated with a group of players that included Jenkins. I worry it was “hush money” more than anything, but time will tell. Considering how hard the NFL tried to hide the impact of concussions from players and fans, I don’t see them running to embrace other social justice issues.
As we tell our students, no matter what your profession, you can lead and serve in your community. Black History is yours to make. Thank you to the Eagles who found ways to demonstrate this to our students.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. A version of this column also ran on his blog, Phillys7thward.org.Header Photo: Flickr CC