Black Athletes, Anthem Protests, and the Spectacle of Patriotism

Members of the San Francisco 49ers kneel during the National Anthem, October 15, 2017. (Photo: Keith Allison, Wikimedia Commons)

The new NFL anthem policy requires players to stand during the national anthem or face a fine. This decision is aimed at curtailing peaceful protest and capitulating to the President, a portion of their perceived fan base, and corporate sponsors. What is perhaps more significant, however, is that the new policy underscores how sports is often used to sell a particular brand of American values and politics. This strategy has been employed by government agencies and professional leagues for decades.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the State Department sponsored Goodwill Trips abroad as a key effort to bolster global perceptions of the United States during the Cold War. The U.S. government sought to capitalize on Black musicians, artists, and athletes who would offer “living proof…of the great progress achieved by the race under the American democratic system.”1 The United States Information Agency (USIA) identified sports as a particularly useful vehicle for Cold War propaganda because sports were supposedly apolitical, and athletes were seen as less likely to be outspoken–particularly Black women. Athletes such as Bill Russell, Wilma Rudolph, and Earlene Brown quickly disabused the USIA of that notion when they spoke candidly on racism and the persistence of segregation both during and after their respective trips abroad.

High jumper Eroseanna “Rose” Robinson declined all together to participate in the goodwill trips. After a successful Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) meeting in 1958, Robinson was selected to participate in a State Department-sponsored track meet in Moscow. Robinson had no interest in helping the State Department use Black athletic labor to advance Cold War politics. She told reporters that she “refused to be a political pawn.” At the 1959 Pan American Games in Chicago a year later, she refused to stand for the national anthem.2

In addition to promoting the idea of racial harmony in the United States, Black athletes were also integral to the expansion of American business interests. In the early 1960s, the United States had identified Post-Colonial West Africa as a place for developing business relations; however, the USIA struggled to gain footing among the local governments. A USIA officer noted the importance of track star Wilma Rudolph to the pursuit of establishing the United States’ political and economic presence in the region: “…the main access that we had really was personal contact largely through sports programs that the State Department sent. People like Wilma Rudolph, people like that….[she was] the key to further programming, especially entertainment in the home, etc. which was virtually unimpeded.”

Within a few weeks of Rudolph’s visit to Senegal, the United States quietly announced an accord to encourage private American investment in the country and establish financial networks with Dakar. A French official exclaimed, “America won more prestige from the thousand or so dollars spent for Wilma Rudolph’s travel expenses than France gained after spending $4 Million [on the Friendship Games and other post-colonial efforts in the region].”3

Wilma Rudolph, Lucinda Williams, Barbara Jones, and Martha Hudson at the 1960 Rome Olympics. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

While the State Department spent the 1950s and 1960s using athletes to disseminate and sanitize America’s brand of racial liberalism and capitalist democracy, national sporting bodies used patriotism to sell their athletic leagues. In 1973, a journalist commenting on the growing “Star- Spangled Habit” noted that “of all the sporting organizations the National Football League projects the most patriotic image.”4 Following the merger with the American Football League, the NFL under Commissioner Pete Rozelle made an effort to tie its brand to “traditional American values.” In contrast to the growing anti-war movement, the NFL doubled down on its support of the Vietnam War with teams turning NFL stadiums into rallies of American might, issuing directives on how to stand and act during the anthem as well as benching players who protested the war and the mandated displays of patriotism during the anthem. “It was a conscious effort on our part to bring an element of patriotism to the Super Bowl,” Rozelle said about the early Super Bowls that featured battle reenactments, air force jets, and copious amounts of American flags.

Furthermore, the NFL used the increasing presence of Black players to position themselves as a paragon of racial harmony. The promotion of a symbolic racial unity infused with patriotic displays of masculinity and heteronormativity positioned the NFL as an institution holding fast to “real American traditions and values” in a country that was experiencing anti-war protests, a resurgent feminist movement, the gay liberation movement, and the continued efforts of activists in the Black freedom struggle.

By 1985, the league that had been comprised of less than 15% Black players two decades earlier was now comprised of close to 55% Black players– although it still had glaring racial disparities in individual positions, coaching, and ownership (a fact that remains true today). The NFL attempted to walk the line between capitalizing on and constraining its increasing Black labor force by passing rules curtailing touchdown dances for instance.

The NFL developed a brand catered to their vision of a prototypical football fan—white, male and straight. A sentiment that is echoed now as the league cites the opinions of fans in the crafting of the new anthem policy summarily ignoring fans, particularly Black fans, who support the players and their protest.

The NFL’s brand continued as a blend of hypermasculinity, multiculturalism, and nationalism that increased into the 1990s. The Gulf War and September 11th both fueled the amount of patriotism infused into the league. While the patriotic spectacle at football games was muted some between 2007-2009, a new partnership with the Department of Defense reinvigorated the hyper-nationalistic displays. The Super Bowl as well as the league itself had indeed become, as former Commissioner Rozelle envisioned, the “4thof July of the Winter”.5

Fredrick Douglass said of the Fourth of July that it was a day that reveals “the sad disparity” in the country, a reminder that the “joyous anthems” sung to celebrate “the rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence” are freedoms that are not shared by all. Similar sentiments led Colin Kaepernick to kneel. He and other protesting players are part of a long history of athletes using the swollen displays of nationalism at sporting events to call attention to injustice.

From Rose Robinson in the 1950s to John Carlos, Tommie Smith and Wyomia Tyus who raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics, to lesser known dissenters like the group of Black cheerleaders at Northern Illinois University who walked off a basketball court during the anthem in 1973 to protest the plight of Black students, athletes have demonstrated during the anthem for a variety of reasons. Puerto Rican runner Amado Morales demonstrated during the national anthem at the 1971 Pan Am games to protest American Colonialism in Puerto Rico.6 Toni Smith-Thompson protested both systemic inequality and the Iraq War in 2002 as a basketball player at Manhattanville College. In 2017, Michael Bennett and other athletes followed in Rose Robinson’s footsteps and refused to be political pawns or symbolic “ambassadors of goodwill” on behalf of the United States and Israel. The tradition continues through all athletes across the nation over the past few years who have knelt in protest and in solidarity, from the leadership of WNBA players to Pop Warner teams in Texas.

This anthem policy attempts to disrupt this history. It attempts to control Black athletes. But even more, it is a desperate effort to sell a vision of “American tradition” and national post-racial unity–much like the Cold War era Goodwill Trips.

Today the NFL markets itself as the one of the last great defenders of American values, predicated on a sense of racial harmony and unbridled capitalism, all the while being a bastion of masculinity and heterosexuality. The threat to that brand scares them. Black athletes kneeling to protest racial injustice scares them. United and outspoken players scare them, and despite clinging to a song that proclaims this country “home of the brave,” the NFL’s cowardice is on full display.

  1.  Department of State- National Security Files: Lot 63 D351, NSC 5525, Status of United States Programs for National Security, August, 31 1955. Pg. 533
  2.  Baker E. Morten, “Ex-Track Star Continues Jail Fast; Pickets Protest.” Chicago Defender, February 03, 1960; “Girl Athlete Refuses to Go to Russia,” Jet, July 31 1958, pg. 54-56
  3.  Ibid; Senegal-U.S. Accord, The Washington Post, June 13, 1963
  4.  Dave Anderson, “Star- Spangled Habit,” New York Times, January 21, 1973, D3
  5. Ibid.
  6.  Big John Husar, “Racial Note to Anthem at No. Illinois,” Chicago Tribune, February 21, 1972, C2; “Power Sign Shows Up at Pan Am,” Chicago Defender, August 5 1971, 34
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Amira Rose Davis

Amira Rose Davis is an Assistant Professor of History and Women’s Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Penn State University, and the Co-Host of the feminist sports podcast, Burn It All Down. She specializes in 20th Century American History with an emphasis on race, gender, sports and politics. She is currently working on a book manuscript on Black Women Athletes in the Age of Jim Crow. Follow her on Twitter @mirarose88.

Comments on “Black Athletes, Anthem Protests, and the Spectacle of Patriotism

  • Very informative. I think those of us who are so inspired, as those of the past were, will continue to resist the “Melting Pot” portrait that America loves to project.

  • Thank you for setting out the clear history of the protests we are seeing today. The author’s restraint in not taking aim at those shrieking loudest in the media today, rather concentrating on the people who really matter, makes a very refreshing change.

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