But their message wasn’t accepted by everyone. Four off-duty Minneapolis police officers, who were working private security at the Lynx game, quit amid the show of activism from the players. Bob Kroll, the president of the union that represents Minneapolis police officers, praised them for walking off the job.
“If [the players] are going to keep their stance, all officers may refuse to work there,” he told The Minneapolis Star Tribune on Tuesday.
But how effective could this threat be? It doesn’t seem to have swayed the players, or the Minnesota Lynx organization. During the news conference, the team was even tweeting some of the players’ quotes, embracing their activism.
Political activism among athletes is not new. Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Lew Alcindor (who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), and other black athletes met with Muhammad Ali in Cleveland in 1967 to see whether his objections, at great personal cost, to the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector were serious. That meeting, in which the heavyweight champion would eventually gain the support of the athletes who attended, would later be called the Ali Summit and has remained a pivotal moment in athlete activism.
Curtis McClinton, who played for the Kansas City Chiefs and attended the meeting, would later tell The Cleveland Plain Dealer:
We knew who we were. We knew what we had woven into our country, and we stood at the highest level of citizenship as men. You name the value, we took the brush and painted it. You raised the bar, we reached it. You defined excellence, we supersede it. As a matter of fact, we defined it.
There were other instances, too: During the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos, two American black runners, raised their black-gloved fists in the air during the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner.” The two men were expelled from the Games for the act.
But this sort of political activism was largely absent among professional athletes in the decades that followed. As President Obama said in 2014, among well-paid athletes there was the notion of “just be quiet and get your endorsements and don’t make waves.” Indeed, Michael Jordan, when asked during his playing days why he wasn’t more political, is reported to have (apocryphally) quipped: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
Recently, though, there have been examples of athletes taking a stand on national issues—coinciding with several high-profile cases in which white police officers killed black men.
In 2014, Derrick Rose, who at the time played for the Chicago Bulls, wore a T-shirt that said, “I Can’t Breathe,” the words repeated by Eric Garner as he died while being taken down with a chokehold by Staten Island police. Shortly thereafter, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Jarrett Jack, Alan Anderson, Deron Williams, and Kevin Garnett of the Brooklyn Nets wore the same shirt when they played each other in New York.