A Brief History of Protest in Sports

From angry gladiators to Suffragette sabotage

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Sports and protest often go together: As soon as someone makes a call, somebody else is disputing it. But in recent weeks, the really big clashes have happened off the playing fields, as President Donald Trump and others criticized football players kneeling during the national anthem. Such mixing of sports, politics and protest has ancient roots—on the part of both spectators and players.

An early protest by a player comes down to us in “Lives of the Twelve Caesars” by the Roman historian Suetonius (69-130 A.D.). An unnamed gladiator once refused to fight in front of the Emperor Caligula. Then, the gladiator, seeing he would die anyway, grabbed his trident and killed his would-be victors.

But in the ancient world, spectators, not players, were mostly the ones to express their feelings. At Rome’s Circus Maximus in 190 A.D., a young woman followed by a group of children rushed forward during the races and accused an official of hoarding grain. A crowd gathered, threatened the home of Emperor Commodus and succeeded in getting him to fire the official.

Another mass sporting protest wasn’t so civil. In sixth-century Constantinople—the ancestor of the city now known as Istanbul—tensions reached a breaking point between the Blues and Greens, political factions that took their names from colors worn by charioteers. When one side lost at the city’s Hippodrome in 532, a crowd started a mass insurrection known as the Nika Riot. Tens of thousands died in a city whose population was about half a million, and Emperor Justinian never again allowed chariot racing at the Hippodrome.

Perhaps with these rebellions in mind, rulers of the Middle Ages kept sports largely aristocratic, with pageantry in and peasants out. Sometimes, though, a game could be a form of protest. During the heyday of England’s Puritan government in the mid-17th century, some towns rebelled by staging soccer games, which were anathema to Puritans.

Sports regained its full status as a mass spectator event at the end of the 19th century. In 1906 Athens, 10 years after the first modern Olympics, Peter O’Connor, an Irish track-and-field athlete, protested British rule by refusing to accept his silver medal under the British flag. Instead, O’Connor scaled the flagpole and attached an Irish one.

Back home, British sports lovers faced a challenge when the Suffragettes began sabotaging men-only sporting activities. This culminated in a tragedy: During the 1913 Epsom Races outside London, protester Emily Davison ran onto the course, reached for the bridle of King George V’s horse and was trampled to death.

Racism fueled one of the most famous Olympics protests, at the Mexico City games in 1968. American runner Tommie Smith had won the 200-meter race; John Carlos had won the bronze. Wearing no shoes, to symbolize black poverty, the two men raised fists in a black-power salute.

In sports, though, there are many winning plays, and that goes for ways to protest iniquity as well. In 1973, champion tennis player Billie Jean King and some other players were unhappy about the vastly unequal prize money between men and women. Ignored and furious, the women left the circuit and started their own organizing body, the Women’s Tennis Association. The net gains are history.

‘A British Milestone in the Fight for Freedom’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: ERASMO VASQUEZ LENDECHY/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Photo: ERASMO VASQUEZ LENDECHY/WIKIMEDIA COMMON

The British officially abolished slavery throughout their empire on Aug. 1, 1834, freeing some 800,000 Africans from bondage. The date should be forever commemorated—but so should slavery’s own history of resistance and rebellion.

That slaves have always found ways to rebel is reflected in the earliest surviving legal texts. In the 21st century B.C., King Ur-Nammu of Ur, an ancient city in what is now Iraq, proclaimed that “if a slave escapes from the city limits and someone returns him, the owner shall pay two shekels to the one who returned him.”

As slavery became more deeply ingrained in society, so did the nature of the resistance. The Greeks were severe toward rebellious slaves. But no society was as cruel or inventive as Sparta. Having subjugated the neighboring Messenians into helotry in the seventh century B.C. (helots were the property of the state), the Spartans inflicted a reign of terror on them: During annual culls, young warriors were encouraged to hunt and kill the strongest helots.

A catastrophic earthquake in 464 B.C. prompted a short-lived rebellion, but the helots remained trapped in their wretched existence for another century. Finally, another opportunity to revolt came in 371 B.C. after the city-state of Thebes defeated Sparta at the Battle of Leuctra. Aided by the victorious Thebans, the Messenians rose up and drove the Spartans from their land.

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‘Slowly and stealthily, Republicans are making abortion legal but impossible’ – The Sunday Times

Photo: Verne Ho

Photo: Verne Ho

What would you do if you lived in a country where in order to obtain an abortion you, or a woman you know, had to consent to being raped by a stranger before the procedure could take place? Where this year the majority party tried to pass a bill that would force women to carry a dead foetus to term. Where four months ago a woman was sentenced to 30 years in prison for charges including “foeticide”.

Where your access to birth control is subject to the whim of local politicians and your chance of dying during pregnancy or childbirth is at least three times higher than in any “civilised” country.

I suspect you would look longingly at the West and wish there was some way of getting there. You might even end up as one of the thousands of illegal immigrants who risk their lives to enter America. In which case you would have wasted a great deal of money and effort, since the country I’m describing is America.

Did your brain just do a flip? It seems hard to credit, doesn’t it, when most countries that have draconian sexual reproduction laws also tend to lack indoor plumbing or women drivers. When people think of sexual perverts who use religious ideology as a smokescreen for abusing women they usually have the Taliban in mind. It turns out Americans don’t need to go so far afield; we have our own version right here at home.

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‘These shootings reveal an America still shackled to the ghosts of slavery’ – The Sunday Times

Photo: John Mark Arnold

Photo: John Mark Arnold

In 2009, a few months after President Barack Obama took office, Jiverly Wong shot dead 13 people at a community centre for immigrants and refugees. Later that year Nidal Hasan killed 13 soldiers in Fort Hood, Texas. In 2011, Jared Loughner shot dead six people outside a supermarket in Tucson, Arizona. The next year James Holmes killed 12 people in a cinema in Aurora, Colorado; followed by Michael Page who killed six in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin; followed by Adam Lanza who killed 26 people — 20 of them children — in a school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. In 2013 Aaron Alexis killed 12 inside the Navy Yard in Washington.

The next year, Fort Hood was attacked again when Ivan Lopez killed three. This year, Craig Hicks killed three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and this month Dylann Roof shot dead nine members of a Bible study group at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina.

These are just the massacres that gained international attention. In fact, since the Sandy Hook Elementary School atrocity 2½ years ago, there have been 72 mass shootings — involving three or more people being shot — with at least 226 being killed.

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‘Here’s a trigger warning for all campus censors: I shall fight you’ – The Sunday Times

Photo: Leeroy

Photo: Leeroy

I stopped watching HBO’s Rape of Thrones — sorry, Game of Thrones — three years ago. I appreciated the plotlines and strong characters and I’ve had both women and men explain to me why it’s necessary for the actresses to play hyper-­‐sexualised roles. But at the end  of the day, to me it’s a sleazy peep show about tits and bums gussied up with high production values and clever dialogue.

There’s a level of crude objectification, a cinematic revelling in the humiliation of women that speaks to something else. It disgusts me on many levels, not least because I believe that “something else” is modern society’s continuing toleration of sexual inequality.

So what’s an angry feminist to do? Well, watch a different programme, for a start. But more effective: complain, debate and generally participate in the marketplace of ideas to try to persuade others that “edgy” entertainment doesn’t have to mean taboo-busting depictions of women being degraded.

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‘The First Ladies and Their Predecessors’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: CSU ARCHIVES/EVERETT COLLECTION

Photo: CSU ARCHIVES/EVERETT COLLECTION

Dolley Madison was born this month in 1768. One of the greatest first ladies in U.S. history, she had a style and energy that brought a uniquely American twist to the role of political spouse. She transformed the White House, not only giving the interiors a much-needed face-lift but also making the presidential residence the social epicenter of Washington, D.C. Among her many gifts to the nation was her insistence that George Washington’s portrait be rescued when the British burned the city in 1814.

But Dolley Madison’s greatest achievement was in creating the role of first lady. President Zachary Taylor used the term for the first time at her funeral in 1849. After her time in the White House, Americans expected first ladies to play a public part, one that was above day-to-day politics and often national in its scope.

The idea of the political spouse has deep historical roots. Livia Drusilla, the ruthless and powerful wife of Caesar Augustus, was instrumental in shaping the destiny of the Roman Empire. Yet even she was imitating a role model that had its original expression in ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization.

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