Rams' 'hands up, don't shoot' protest part of a sports tradition

  • Heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali, center, became a pariah and was stripped of his title after refusing to serve in the Vietnam War. His stance that his faith (he was a member of the Nation of Islam) precluded him from serving in combat, was ridiculed at the time. Today, Ali’s anti-war fight has cemented his status as a political icon. In this photo, Ali can be seen leaving the Armed Forces induction center with his entourage after refusing to be drafted into the Armed Forces in Houston, April 28, 1967.  
  • Track and field stars Tommie Smith (C) and John Carlos (R) made history and shocked the world when they chose to raise their gloved fists in a Black Power salute to express their opposition to racism in America during the U.S. national anthem, after receiving their medals in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Their silent protest became a popular staple on college dorm room walls and the fallout from their demonstration would haunt both men for the rest of their lives. 
  • During Jackie Robinson’s historic, barrier-breaking rookie season in Major League Baseball, he faced resistance from not just the press and opposing teams, but even some of his own teammates on the Brooklyn Dodgers. At the height of the controversy, Robinson’s teammate Pee Wee Reese made a point to openly embrace him in the face of heckling fans. The moment when Reese, who had previously refused to sign a team petition to boot Robinson off the Dodgers, put his arm around Robinson became so iconic that a statue of it was erected and it currently stands in the Coney Island neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • This spring, the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers were faced with an embarrassing media firestorm when racist remarks by their longtime owner Donald Sterling went viral. The predominately African-American Clippers, who were in the middle of a hard-fought playoff series, wanted to show their opposition to Sterling without walking away from the game they love. So during an April 27 game against the Golden State Warriors they symbolically wore their red Clippers’ warm-up shirts inside out to hide the team’s logo and discarded their team jackets in the center of the court. 
  • Puerto Rico-born baseball star Carlos Delgado caught considerable flak and made national headlines for his silent protest against the Iraq War during the entirety of the 2004 MLB season. Delgado refused to come out of the dugout while “God Bless America” was performed. “It’s a very terrible thing that happened on September 11. It’s (also) a terrible thing that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq … I just feel so sad for the families that lost relatives and loved ones in the war. But I think it’s the stupidest war ever,” Delgado said at the time.
  • In 2010, during the height of tension in Arizona over a controversial anti-immigration law, Phoenix Suns stars wore “Los Suns” jerseys to show their support for protesters who believed the legislation was racially prejudiced and counter-productive. “However intended, the result of passing the law is that our basic principles of equal rights and protection under the law are being called into question,” Suns owner Robert Sarver said at the time, “and Arizona’s already struggling economy will suffer even further setbacks at a time when the state can ill-afford them.”
  • In this Sept. 21, 2013 file photo, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter (2), wears APU for “All Players United” on wrist tape as he scores a touchdown during an NCAA college football game against Maine in Evanston, Ill.  Over the past couple seasons, several college football stars have worn APU labels to show their opposition to NCAA policies regarding the sharing of revenue generated by merchandise with student athletes. They are also calling for improved health and safety standards for players.
  • The Trayvon Martin case was personal for Miami Heat players since the unarmed teen’s 2012 shooting death took place in their own Florida backyard. In this image posted to then-Heat star LeBron James’ Twitter page, the entire squad dons hoodies, which are meant as an homage to Martin, who was wearing one when he was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman. Zimmerman was later acquitted in Martin’s death. 
  • On Nov 30, 2014, St. Louis Rams wide receiver Kenny Britt (81) puts his hands up to show support for Michael Brown before a game against the Oakland Raiders at the Edward Jones Dome. He was joined by his teammates Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, Jared Cook, and Chris Givens. “I don’t want the people in the community to feel like we turned a blind eye to it,” Britt said after the game, which the Rams won 52-to-0. “What would I like to see happen? Change in America.”
  • LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers wears an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt during warm-ups before his game against the Brooklyn Nets during their game at the Barclays Center on December 8, 2014 in New York. The NBA superstar was paying tribute to the late Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died while being restrained in an apparent chokehold by New York City police officer on July 17. Garner’s death was captured on videotape and his last words were “I can’t breathe,” which he said repeatedly before he passed away. Police had stopped Garner for selling unlicensed cigarettes.
  • Andrew Hawkins #16 of the Cleveland Browns walks onto the field while wearing a protest shirt during introductions prior to the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at FirstEnergy Stadium on December 14, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. Hawkins’ shirt references the death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Cleveland resident who was shot and killed by police for carrying what turned out to be an “airsoft” toy gun on November 22. His shirt also calls attention to John Crawford III who was shot and killed on August 5 by police officers in a Cleveland area Wal-Mart for carrying a toy gun he was planning to purchase there. Both deaths brought renewed awareness to the issue of excessive force by police.



The world of sports is still buzzing about the act of protest put on by St. Louis Rams players on Sunday.

Five stars of the Missouri-based NFL franchise entered their game against the Oakland Raiders recreating the “hands up, don’t shoot” stance made popular by activists in Ferguson, the site of the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, on August 9.

Brown’s supporters believe that the late teenager had his hands up and was surrendering when he was killed by former police officer Darren Wilson. However, Wilson and Ferguson authorities insist that Brown was “charging” at police when he was fatally shot.

The Rams players who showed solidarity with Ferguson protesters are winning both praise and condemnation from Americans on both sides of the Michael Brown debate. The St. Louis Police Officers Association has condemned the Rams organization and called for the NFL to levy a punishment against the players who participated in the demonstration. Meanwhile, the players themselves are sticking by their actions.

“I just think there has to be a change,” Cook told the Associated Press on Sunday. “There has to be a change that starts with the people that are most influential around the world.”

Of course, the Rams are far from the first professional athletes to use their considerable influence to make a political or social statement. Their silent protest recalls the infamous black power salute John Carlos and Tommie Smith made during the 1968 Olympics or the solemn “hoodie photo” which the Miami Heat posed for in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case in 2012. 

Athletes are often discouraged from taking on contentious issues for fear that it could alienate their fanbase and affect their bottom line. Nevertheless, for decades, sports stars have bucked the trend and expressed their First Amendment rights.

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