A brief history of sports and political protest

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President Donald Trump’s controversial remarks regarding football players who kneel during the national anthem sparked a 200-player protest, but it’s not the first time politics and sports have mixed.

“It’s a big hot mess” said Arizona State University professor and sports historian Victoria Jackson, “the best approach to this is to take a big step back.”

Jackson believes the conflict between the President and professional athletes shouldn’t be looked at as athletes bringing politics into sports because historically, sports has been a political project.

In that sense, according to Jackson, the protests occurring on the field aren’t abnormalities, but part of history.


Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," NFL players and the president face off over player protests during the national anthem. Also tonight, a new report shows that the suicide rate among veterans is highest in western states. And a local nonprofit steps in to raise breast cancer awareness now that the Susan G. Komen organization is no longer in Arizona. Those stories next, on "Arizona Horizon."

"Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of Arizona PBS. Members of your PBS station. Thank you.

Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon."

I'm Ted Simons. The congressional budget office today announced that a new republican attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare would reduce insurance coverage for, quote, millions." Minutes after the cbo report, republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine announced that she is now opposed to the bill, which undermines this second version that was designed to appeal to those senators, like Collins, who opposed the original incarnation. No word yet on whether or not the senate will still put the new bill to a vote. And doctors have told senator John McCain that the prognosis for his fight against brain cancer is, according to McCain, poor. McCain spoke yesterday on 60-minutes.

John McCain: It's very serious, the prognosis is very, very serious. Some say 3%. Some say 14%. I'm more energetic and more engaged as a result of this because I know I have to do everything I can to serve this country while I can.

Ted Simons: McCain underwent surgery in July for glioblastoma, the same form of brain cancer that took the life of Senator Ted Kennedy in 2009. The firestorm between President Trump and the NFL continues, this after hundreds of players either kneeled or locked arms in games around the country yesterday. The president today doubled down on his statement that any player who takes a knee should be fired.

President Trump: We have a great country. We have great people representing our people, especially our soldiers, first responders -- they should be treated with respect. When you get on your knees, and you don't respect the American flag or anthem, that's not respect.

Ted Simons: The controversy has spread to other sports, with n-b-a star LeBron James calling the president a, quote, "bum." the Phoenix Suns this morning held their annual media day, and head coach Earl Watson had some thoughts on all this.

Earl Watson: You know, some negative things need to be addressed. We need to bring people to educate both sides, all sides. Even DACA, I’m out spoken of all of that. I come from a mixed family, so I bring a lot of points of view. Me bringing my experience and hoping to change the president and actions being involved. Get involved in your communities to make the difference.

Ted Simons: The current controversy is not the first time that sports figures have used their position and prominence as an avenue for protest. Here with more is Victoria Jackson, an ASU professor and sports historian. Welcome to "Arizona Horizon."

Victoria Jackson: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Ted Simons: What do you think of this controversy?

Victoria Jackson: It's a big hot mess. As a historian, I think the approach to this is taking a step back. Instead of athletes bringing politics to sports, looking at sports as a political project. Football has been a political project from its birth.

Ted Simons: Talk to us about that?

Victoria Jackson: I'll use the term white supremacy in a noncontroversial way. President rose very well and leaders in higher education saw this as a way to train young men to lead the world races. Those that played and watched the game were able to demonstrate manliness and prowess on the field and fitness to lead.

Ted Simons: That sounds bizarre to hear that sort of thing. How long did that stay with football? As a kid, I never heard of this kind of thing?

Victoria Jackson: Money and winning. Big time college sports developed from the onset. If you win, you make money. Money brings pride to the university, so you find the best talent out there. Working class people find an entryway to colleges through football scholarships, subsidizing from boosters. There is more diversity of backgrounds and experiences on the field.

Ted Simons: As far as this controversy going on right now, are these protests, do you believe -- are they effective? It sounds like they protesting Donald Trump opposed to the initial idea Collin Kaepernick took a knee on.

Victoria Jackson: It's the actions that many of these athletes have made since taking a stand, whether it's locking arms or taking a knee during the game. If we focus on their message, it's about police brutality, criminal justice reform. The athletes have done work in symbolism on the field. If we look historically, there was an international component as well.

Ted Simons: After 9-11, sports, coming together or breaking apart. Talk about that?

Victoria Jackson: Sports becomes a space for nationalism and patriotism. The anthem is bound up in this. What's new, and even more recent is the players on the field during the national anthem. That's 2009. This is a recent phenomenon for players to be on the field in a respectful way. There is politics behind what we consider the status quo. The department of defense was paying millions to the clubs to host military appreciation nights, to have the reenlistment of military people, to have the unfurling of the flag. That was provided by the military defense.

Ted Simons: How does this end? Do we keep the player in the locker room until the anthem is over? Do we have all players take a knee from now on?

Victoria Jackson: That's a good question. The black freedom movement is on, ongoing project. Athletes are part of the projects. We should think of this in a positive way, I think, instead of a negative way. They are working to make our country better by calling attention to issues and by people that have been marginalized without a platform to be heard.

Ted Simons:: For those that hear that and say we agree there is an issue to be addressed, chief of staff John Kelly said we should give thanks for three lousy minutes. Do we do it during the three minutes?

Victoria Jackson: You have a choice. What's great about this country, you can choose to protest and call attention to the issues.

Ted Simons: Is it effective, though?

Victoria Jackson: Is it effective? It's mobilized others to do more. If you look at someone like LeBron James who was a political person but didn't do as much as he might have, with the launch of black lives matter in 2014 has done so much for local communities in Ohio. He's paying for a thousand kids to go to college free. That's exciting, mobilizing people to do more.

Ted Simons: Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

Victoria Jackson: Professor of Sports History, Arizona State University

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