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.

‘The Many Meanings of May Day’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: ART MEDIA/PRINT COLLECTOR/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: ART MEDIA/PRINT COLLECTOR/GETTY IMAGES

The Law of Non-­‐Contradiction states that it isn’t possible to be both Y and Not-­‐Y at the same time—which suggests that the law never encountered May Day, the public holiday celebrated on May 1,  which both is and isn’t a celebration of summer. May Day owes its origins to the ancient festivals—from the Roman Floralia to the Celtic Beltane—that celebrated the first plantings of the season and the coming of the solstice.

May Day owes its origins to the ancient festivals—from the Roman Floralia to the Celtic Beltane—that celebrated the first plantings of the season and the coming of the solstice.

By the end of the Middle Ages, the day had become one of the most important on the calendar. Just as the fir tree has become a popular symbol of Christmas, the flowering hawthorn—also called the May tree—became the sacred emblem of summer. (When Shakespeare wrote, “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May” in his famous Sonnet 18, he meant the tree, not the month.)

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‘Ferguson is burning as Mississippi did. In 50 years we haven’t learnt’ – The Sunday Times

Photo: Katleen Vanacker

Photo: Katleen Vanacker

The slaughter of innocents cries out for justice. That is precisely what happened on Monday, when a terrible race crime finally received closure. Although the murder must never be forgotten, Americans can now feel some satisfaction that the proper recognition has taken place. As President Barack Obama said: “We must continue to fight for the ideals of equality and justice for which they gave their lives.”

No, I have not lost my mind. All this did happen. But, as you may have guessed, I am not referring to the announcement in Ferguson, Missouri, that no charges would be brought against the white policeman who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. I’m talking about an event that took place 50 years ago in Neshoba County, Mississippi, when three civil rights workers — two white and one black, named Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney — were killed by the Ku Klux Klan. At the White House the three men were posthumously given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in America.

The reason I’m linking Ferguson with Mississippi Burning (as the event is known) is not the piquancy of having the two events on the same day — although it cannot be ignored — but that there is a clarity that comes with historical perspective.

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‘One Kardashian bum selfie and Occupy Wall Street is history’ – The Sunday Times

Photo: @KIMKARDASHIAN ON INSTAGRAM

Photo: @KIMKARDASHIAN ON INSTAGRAM

It was mid-September, three years ago, when a small group of protesters gathered by the raging bull sculpture in Lower Manhattan and formed the Occupy Wall Street movement. They had a grievance and a slogan: “We are the 99%”. A few weeks earlier Kim Kardashian, the world’s most successful reality-TV star, had held a lavish televised wedding to a basketball player named Kris Humphries.

Less than four months later OWS had transformed itself into a global movement with offshoots from Toronto to Tel Aviv. It had even received the ultimate accolade in the form of a message from President Barack Obama. That’s right; the White House had issued a statement assuring Americans that their president was working for the 99%. No other movement in history had enjoyed so enormous an impact in so short a time.

In Los Angeles, however, where the bodaciously vapid Kim and her sullen hunk of a husband Kris were back in the bosom of the Kardashian family reality show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, things were not so rosy. With great fortitude and no doubt inhuman levels of personal sacrifice, they managed to keep the marriage going until October. On the 31st it was announced that they were filing for divorce.

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‘Phoney cause of the nipple freedom fighters’ – The Sunday Times

Phoney cause of the nipple freedom fightersNew York last week was awash with nipples. Actually, it was a tiny corner of downtown Manhattan. And it wasn’t so much a sea of breasts, as a handful (or an eyeful) of women who went topless in support of a campaign to “free the nipple”. For the uninitiated, #FreeTheNipple, was the brainchild of 29-year-old Lina Esco, who felt it was unfair that men can show their nipples in public in all 50 states, whereas for women it’s a mere 13. Esco struggled in comparative obscurity until her protest was annexed recently by Scout Willis, daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. She is locked in an ongoing struggle with Instragram over the freedom to post naked selfies. The internet company maintains a blanket policy against nude photos as a way of deterring pornographers and paedophiles.

Meanwhile, in Washington, far from the media glare and Scout Willis’s breasts, another struggle for women’s rights was taking place last week. This one, led by Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri and others, is part of a White House effort to stem the increase in sexual assaults across US campuses. Roused in part by a 2007 federal study that revealed a shocking level of violence against female students — 20% are sexually assaulted at some point during their college career — in May the White House appointed a taskforce to confront the problem. In addition to holding hearings on the subject on Capitol Hill, the taskforce is focusing on how to use Title IX, a 1972 civil rights law, to force universities to provide better protection for female students.

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