Athlete Activists

In fall 2016, Colin Kaepernick shook the sports world. A quarterback on the San Francisco 49ers football team, Kaepernick kneeled in silence during the national anthem …

In fall 2016, Colin Kaepernick shook the sports world. A quarterback on the San Francisco 49ers football team, Kaepernick kneeled in silence during the national anthem, game after game. He was taking a knee to make a stand. Kaepernick was unequivocally critical of the oppression and violence being meted out against people of color, and his activism has extended beyond the football field. In the last year he has donated $1 million to an array of causes, including $50,000 each to both Meals on Wheels and the Mni Wiconi Health Clinic at Standing Rock, the epicenter of the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. He started a “Know Your Rights Camp” that teaches young people about the brass tacks of how to interact with police. However, Kaepernick has paid a price for his outspokenness. After opting out of his 49ers contract and becoming a free agent, he has not been picked up by another team, despite his impressive statistics and proven ability to lead. More than a few members of the sports punditocracy have suggested Kaepernick is being blackballed for so vociferously blending politics and sports. In some ways, Kaepernick’s tale is foretold by the experiences of Craig Hodges, a basketball player on the championship-winning Chicago Bulls of the 1990s, who also was unafraid to speak out.

The world of sport has long been saddled with the specious notion that politics and athletics are meant to sit separate. But, as the great public intellectual Stuart Hall noted, “Ideology is always contradictory.”1 Although sports aficionados crave athletes who can express themselves with vim and ingenuity, often this predilection extends only to the arena of sport. Once that inventiveness shimmies off the playing field and into the realm of politics, athletes open themselves up to a world of scorn and vitriol. The simplistic stick-to-sports ideology has been actively stoked by sports luminaries and administrators alike.

Such sophistry did not clog the agile mind of US basketball star Craig Hodges. When Hodges was eight years old, he was transfixed by the iconic act of dissent that John Carlos and Tommie Smith carried out on the medal stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. The image of the two African American athletes thrusting their black-gloved fists skyward as the national anthem blared overhead—Carlos wearing a long string of beads signifying his African heritage, jacket unzipped to symbolize his working-class roots—was seared into Hodges’s memory. “They had no fear,” recalls Hodges in his captivating autobiography Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter, written with Rory Fanning. “I was going to be one of those political athletes,” he decided then and there. “But I needed smarts—not just sports—to do it right.”

Vibrant activist movements are vital to providing athlete activists with political cover.

Hodges grew up in Chicago Heights, Illinois, roughly halfway between Chicago and the hardscrabble city of Gary, Indiana, where, he says, “My reality was defined by segregation.” He was buoyed by a vibrant family life, surrounded by uncles, aunts, grandparents, and siblings who valued spirited political debate, and who also held a definite preference for sports icons “who stood their ground on issues like racism and injustice,” people like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and, of course, the Olympians Carlos and Smith.

Years later, Hodges was a player on the star-studded Chicago Bulls preparing to take on the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1991 National Basketball Association (NBA) championship series, and again he thought of that indelible Olympic moment from 1968. He asked himself, “What would I do on basketball’s biggest stage? … I felt I owed it to the next generation to make the most of my moment standing before the world.” Hodges attempted to persuade his teammate and NBA megastar Michael Jordan that the Bulls should boycott the series’ first game in order to splash a spotlight on “racism and economic inequality in the NBA, where there were no Black owners and almost no Black coaches despite the fact that 75 percent of the players in the league were African American.” After Jordan shrugged off the idea, Hodges approached Earvin “Magic” Johnson of the opposing Los Angeles Lakers, who replied, “That’s too extreme, man.” These rebuffs came only three months after Los Angeles police officers had brutally beaten Rodney King, putting racial stress on high boil. The Bulls won the championship but Hodges wasn’t fully satisfied. He recounts, “I couldn’t help thinking that I’d had a national platform and didn’t use it to help my people.”


Against Civility

By Tobias Kelly et al.

That didn’t mean Hodges was done trying. When the Bulls joined President George H. W. Bush at the White House the following October for what has since become the customary visit for US sports champions, Hodges delivered an eight-page missive that began: “The purpose of this note is to speak on behalf of the poor people, Native Americans, homeless, and most specially the African Americans who are not able to come to this great edifice and meet the leader of the nation in which they live.” The letter went on to address a range of issues including escalating incarceration rates, the need for slavery reparations, and the economic roots of urban violence. At the event, he met the president’s son George W. Bush, who, noticing Hodges’s white dashiki, clumsily asked in a loud drawl, “Where are you from?”

One member of the Chicago Bulls who was conspicuously absent that day was Michael “Republicans buy sneakers, too” Jordan. He had reportedly exclaimed in the Bulls locker room, “I’m not going to the White House. Fuck Bush. I didn’t vote for him.” Jordan’s snub created a media brouhaha, with journalist Michael Wilbon describing the incident as “disturbing” in the Washington Post and asserting that Jordan “has an obligation to his team, and as the world’s most famous basketball player, to his sport … Jordan should have been there. Period.”2 Sports columnist Jay Mariotti fumed in the Chicago Sun-Times that the player’s snub was “about the most disturbing, irresponsible and irrational thing Jordan has done in public life.”3

Hodges, on the other hand, did not reproach Jordan for his decision. But that’s not to say Jordan gets a free pass in the book. He writes that the perennial MVP “didn’t know shit about Black history” and lacked “an education in the struggle of our people,” that he refused to take any responsibility for Nike’s exploitation of workers in East Asia, that he was overzealous about bombing Iraq, and that he was “blind to the impact US foreign policy had around the world.” Still, Hodges sympathizes with Jordan: he “didn’t speak out largely because he didn’t know what to say, not because he was a bad person … Jordan was full of contradictions, rooted in a political ignorance that wasn’t necessarily his fault.”

Long Shot is the engrossing story of a cerebral athlete activist who was willing to align his sentiments and actions, even if it meant sacrificing his career on the altar of his beliefs. Hodges passionately gobbled up politics, reading books on road trips and taking on the role of team representative with the NBA Players Union. “Everyone in the league knew they were eventually going to get an earful of political talk if they bumped into me,” he writes. Hodges also attended events held by the Nation of Islam, although he was not himself a member. “Most people take their first date to a movie, but not me,” he declares. “I take my first dates to hear the minister Louis Farrakhan speak.” One journalist in the know revealed to Hodges that because of his politics, and the perception that he was affiliated with Farrakhan, he was traded. Long Shot describes how he was eventually blackballed from the league.

With political outspokenness came labor peril. A key step along the way involved perpetual frenemy Michael Jordan. In the wake of charges being dismissed against the Los Angeles police officers who had brutally beaten Rodney King, even though the thrashing was caught on camera, Hodges felt like Jordan wasn’t doing enough. Partway through the 1992 NBA championship series, Hodges told as much to William C. Rhoden of the New York Times. He said, “This is a war … We’re in war when you look at what happened in Los Angeles, what’s getting ready to happen in Chicago, Newark. The poverty in the city is so hellish, just look across the street. Then you have us playing in here—how much money did we make here last night? How many lives will it change?” He continued, “Leadership in America is the athletes and entertainers. That’s why I feel I have to start speaking out. I don’t like to, I don’t like to step on toes. I don’t feel like somebody should tell you what you should be doing.” Yet Hodges was a person of deep principle and he absolutely had to speak his mind. He also slammed the NBA for failing to fill coaching vacancies with qualified African Americans. Portland Trail Blazer legend Clyde Drexler agreed with Hodges: “We talk about it all the time … Eventually, I think something has to be done. At some point in time, something has to be said on a national level.”4 The Chicago Bulls defeated the Trail Blazers for the 1992 NBA championship. Less than a month later, Hodges, who was a free agent, learned that the Bulls would not re-sign him. No NBA teams would return his calls. He was effectively being banished from the league.

Hodges’s swift ejection from the NBA points up some key lessons. First, vibrant activist movements are vital to providing athlete activists with political cover. Political movements scythe open political space for athletes to speak out. Carlos and Smith had the Olympic Project for Human Rights at their back, as well as the wider civil rights movement. Hodges was not linked in deep ways to active political movements, which were relatively anemic in the early 1990s, leaving him open to suppression and isolation. Hodges himself argues in Long Shot that “The Nation of Islam was the sole resource at the time for those who were looking for a revolutionary current in the Black struggle.” The Congressional Black Caucus, meanwhile, was, from his perspective, dishing up dollops of watered-down corporate-flavored tripe. Steeped in radical black political traditions, Hodges would have benefited tremendously from a movement like Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter’s vibrancy and militancy—not to mention that of movements like Idle No More, #NoDAPL, and Moral Mondays protests in North Carolina—help explain the increase in athlete activism we have seen in recent years, from people like LeBron James, who wore an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt before an NBA game to protest the police killing of Eric Garner in New York, to Bronson Koenig, the University of Wisconsin basketball player and Native American of the Ho-Chunk Nation who traveled in solidarity to Standing Rock, to Colin Kaepernick.

Hodges also reminds us that African American athletes play a central role in the history of athlete activism, risking much to express their dissent. His travails also show how the emergence of the NBA as a juggernaut of commercialism has a double edge, providing high salaries that sometimes come with constraints. Hodges describes in Long Shot how sponsors and agents pressured athletes not to speak out and how athletes deliberately sidestepped politics so as not to offend their sponsors.

Pushed to the margins in the 1990s, the author of Long Shot likely would have thrived as an outspoken athlete in our current political climate. His story is a vital contribution at the crossroads of politics and sports, bridging the athlete activism of the 1960s and the modern-day sport-based fightback. The world needs more like Craig Hodges. In 1992 Gatorade first aired its “Be Like Mike” commercial featuring Michael Jordan. Twenty-five years later, a “Be Like Craig” adage may better weather the enormous weight of posterity. icon

  1. Stuart Hall, Selected Political Writings: The Great Moving Right Show and Other Essays, edited by Sally Davison et al. (Duke University Press, 2017), p. 326.
  2. Michael Wilbon, “Ill Wind in Washington Leaves Hot Air in Chicago,” Washington Post, October 6, 1991.
  3. Quoted in Ailene Voisin, “Jordan’s Image Stained by Bush Snub Backwash,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 7, 1991.
  4. William C. Rhoden, “Hodges Criticizes Jordan for His Silence on Issues,” New York Times, June 5, 1992.
Featured image: Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) showing the raised fist on the podium after the 200 m race at the 1968 Summer Olympics; both wear Olympic Project for Human Rights badges. Peter Norman (silver medalist, left) from Australia also wears an OPHR badge in solidarity with Smith and Carlos.