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2017: A Year in Review (By Zachary Draves)

The great writer William Faulkner once said “the past is never dead, it’s not even past.” In other words, whatever occurred in the past is never forgotten and still applies to the present. That can be used to describe the atmosphere that engulfed all of 2017, particularly in the world of sports. What we saw was a new and energetic wave of athletes getting involved in social justice activism and speaking up for others. The roots of this surge in athlete activism really started in 2016 when figures such as Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racial justice, the U.S. Women’s Soccer team demanding equal pay from the U.S. soccer federation, WNBA players wearing shirts that say “Black Lives Matter,”as well as Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Paul speaking up for equality and justice at the ESPY’s, among many others, galvanized us into action. Then came November 8th. We all know what happened. So in the spirit of celebrating the New Year, the details of that night shall be spared. However, the past was never erased from our memory and it was this year where all those feelings of anger, despair, and frustration started to surface.


It all began in January with the historic Women’s March. At the march there were prominent activists, elected officials, and entertainers, but there was also a participating group from the organization Athlete Ally which focuses on LGBTQ inclusion and acceptance in sports. Also in attendance was Joanna Lohman, midfielder for the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League. Soolmaz Abooali, an Iranian American refugee and national karate champion and a PHD student at George Mason University took part in the march. Mary Harvey, former goal keeper for the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team was present. Linai Vaz DeNegri, a synchronized swimmer from Brazil who became a U.S. citizen in 2016 took part. The Women’s March was the driving force for this year and however slowly, but surely, a movement was beginning.

Later the so called president who shall not be named signed an executive order issuing a 90 day travel ban on seven majority Muslim countries. This draconian policy banned acceptance of refugees from countries such as Syria which is experiencing a brutal civil war. The ban halted entrance of U.S. citizens that were traveling back to the U.S. from one of the seven countries. The sports world, particularly those in basketball and soccer, spoke out against this infringement on people’s humanity. NBA player Loul Deng, a refugee from South Sudan who has a dual British citizenship, spoke out against this ban on social media and told his and the stories of many others from Sudan who experienced genocide and civil war and how refugee resettlement programs have saved their lives. NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon, a refugee from Nigeria and a devout Muslim, spoke out against the ban. NBA coaches Stan Van Gundy, Steve Kerr, and Greg Popovich vehemently spoke out against the ban. Former NBA player and political activist Etan Thomas lent his voice. Former NBA player Jason Collins, the first openly gay NBA player, joined in. Lebron James and Kyrie Irving played their part. U.S. soccer players Becky Sauerbrunn, Darlington Nagbe, Sacha Kljestan, and Alejandro Bedoya spoke out. Olympic fencing champion Ibtihaj Muhammad was actually detained by U.S. customs as a result of the travel ban for two hours. From there, the movement never slowed down and continued to grow.


It wasn’t until the fall of 2017 where the movement of athlete involvement exploded. It all began with the beginning of the NFL season with Colin Kaepernick nowhere in sight. In fact, while the NFL refused to sign him because of his political stances and nothing else, he was putting his money where his mouth is. He donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter. He started his Know Your Rights campaign in places such as Chicago, Oakland, and San Francisco that gives young people information on their legal rights if or when they have encounters with law enforcement. He made a trip to Ghana on July 4th to celebrate independence. During that trip he legitimately questioned the meaning of July 4th when in 1776 slavery was still in existence in the United States and this holiday to commemorate so called “independence” didn’t apply to everyone. It makes us think of the speech by Frederick Douglas in 1852 entitled “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” in which he poses the question “What, to the American Negro, is your Fourth of July?” He answers “A day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham.” It was during that trip that Colin took the time to visit local hospitals, the Kwame Nkrumah’s Memorial Park dedicated to Ghana’s first President and Prime Minister who led the effort to free Ghana from British colonialism, and the Cape Coast Castle, one of 40 castles that housed enslaved Africans before they were shipped off to the Americas and the Caribbean to be sold as human chattel. Colin donated to Meals on Wheels after a certain someone gutted their funding. He donated some of his old suits to organizations that provide business attire to former prisoners so that they have something to wear for a job interview. He visited Rikers Island to talk to the inmates against the backlash and fear mongering from the opposition. On Thanksgiving he visited Alcatraz Island in San Francisco the sight of one of the greatest rebellions by the American Indian Movement from 1969 to 1971 and showed his support for our indigenous sisters and brothers. It finally culminated in him receiving honors from GQ magazine, ACLU, and Sports Illustrated. Yet, in spite of all he has done, he is somehow disrespecting America and is unworthy of being signed to an NFL team, even though he is a much better quarterback than most of those currently playing while the NFL allows domestic abusers, dog fighters, and murderers to continue to play.


During his exile, many called for a boycott of the NFL. Many lived up to that promise. Then, during a speech to a predominately white crowd in Alabama, no need to go into Alabama’s history, a certain someone referred to Colin and other NFL players as “sons of b-----” who need to be fired for taking a knee. Not only was that an insult to the players, but to their mothers, particularly black women. That rant galvanized players to continue taking a knee during the anthem and players such as Michael and Martellecus Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers to continue using their voice and speaking out against injustice. Not only was the NFL galvanized, but other leagues including the MLB and WNBA had players taking a knee during the anthem and many college and high school teams had players doing the same thing. The Golden State Warriors after winning the NBA title led by Stephen Curry decided to not visit the White House after this person’s statements. This prompted a broader discussion about the role sports has in society and how it has and continues to be a vehicle for social change.


This year concluded with the #MeToo movement that will continue to grow going into the New Year. Against the backdrop of horrific acts of sexual assault and sexual harassment by high profile male figures such as Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Louis C.K., Matt Lauer, Al Franken, and of course the so called president, women and girls began to use their voices to speak up and to tell their stories and the sports world was no exception. The biggest story to come out of this was the U.S. Gymnastics star McKyala Maroney telling her story of being sexually abused the team doctor Dr. Larry Nassar when she was 13 years old. Fellow U.S. Gymnastics star Gabby Douglas also told her story of being abused by Dr. Nassar. Former Soviet Gymnast and Olympic gold medalist Tatiana Gutsu told her story of being raped by one of her male teammates in 1991 when she was 15 years old. More than 140 women in the sport of gymnastics came forward to tell their stories of being abused by this man who is currently and thankfully behind bars. This prompted a congressional investigation into sexual abuse in sports and a bill that was introduced in the U.S. Senate called the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse Act of 2017 led by Senators Dianne Feinstein and Elizabeth Warren. WNBA star Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm told her story of being sexually abused as a child. She talked about how she was inspired by the courage of the U.S. gymnasts, Tarana Burke, a prominent African American woman activist who originally started the MeToo movement in 1997, and the NFL players to tell her story. She and the Seattle Storm also partnered with Planned Parenthood during the summer to support women’s reproductive health care. This burgeoning movement will not stop and there will be more women and girls coming out of the shadows going forward. There is hope in that there is awareness as never seen before and that more victims/survivors are being believed. That will mobilize us into taking action and ensuring that the lives of women and girls are validated and their rights will be protected.


All in all, 2017 was one year to remember. As we head into 2018, we can look back at a year that was filled with triumphs, defeats, and possibilities. We are at a moment in time where the world of sports will no longer be seen as being immune from the rest of society. Whether we are talking about racial justice, diversity/inclusion, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, or sexual violence, the sports world will always continue to speak up, speak out, and use its influence to encourage use to continue advocating for social justice. We as social workers who work with athletes need to continue the work and inspire our colleagues and others in the sports world to join us in our efforts. This year on April 4th will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., June 5th will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, and October 16th will be the 50th anniversary of the heroic protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. These were moments in history that had a direct impact on where we are today. We must not let their legacies go in vain. We must continue to support those athletes who take a stand, support our organization, and support other organizations such as Athletes for Impact (http://www.athletesforimpact.com/) that was started by many of the prominent athlete activists of the present. As said before, the past is never past, the actions and legacies of Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Arthur Ashe, Jim Brown, Hank Aaron, Curt Flood, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Mahmoud Abdul Rauf, Craig Hodges are never past. As Dr. King said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” That is what these heroes and she-roes did and that is what we need to continue doing.


Happy New Year!

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