Public Thinker: Louis Moore on Athlete-Activists before and after Kaepernick

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.
In late 2016, amid the furor over Colin Kaepernick’s on-field protests against police brutality and rampant ...
Louis Moore

In late 2016, amid the furor over Colin Kaepernick’s on-field protests against police brutality and rampant inequality, a debate raged as to whether athletes ought to simply “stick to sports” or, in cruder terms, “just shut up and play.” The historian Louis Moore knew full well that the desire to silence athletes was not only platitudinous pabulum, but also a timeworn trope that stretched back into the past. Sure, Laura Ingraham of Fox News could tell LeBron James of the NBA to “shut up and dribble,” as she did in February 2018, but Moore understood that this was a modern-day variation on Brent Musburger’s attack on John Carlos and Tommie Smith—who at the 1968 Olympics thrust their black-gloved fists into the Mexico City sky to protest injustice—as “black-skinned storm troopers.” And the thing is, Moore has the historical receipts.

To be sure, history is informative—not determinative—of contemporary political struggle. Moore expertly leavens the present-day nexus of sports and politics with on-point insights from history, without overdetermining the weight of dead generations on the brains of the living. When activists stood up in support of Kaepernick as he was being ostracized from professional football because of his political beliefs, Moore explained how “the modern NFL was forged in the Black freedom struggle.” When the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics unfolded in South Korea and many wondered whether we’d see a spate of athlete activism, Moore pointed to the instructive example of athletes who boycotted the prestigious New York Athletic Club’s track meet in 1968. He does all this by raising up the voices of black journalists from the past, digging into his trove of articles from black newspapers and magazines to spotlight the ways that African American athletes have used sports to fight for equality.

Moore is an associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University, whose classes focus on African American history, civil rights, and US sports history. In his teaching—and in his rambunctious Twitter feed—he uses historical documents, especially news articles, to raise questions, draw parallels, and, it must be said, slam dunk a punk or two. He is the author of two recently published books, I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880–1915 and We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality. He has also written for a number of online outlets such as The Shadow League, Black Perspectives, New York Daily News, Vox, and Vocativ. In his role as a public intellectual, Moore has appeared as a commentator on NPR, MSNBC, the BBC, and other outlets.

Jules Boykoff (JB): Dr. Moore, your research relies on history at a time when there is a decline in the number of history majors in US colleges and universities, and a time when one could argue that having a strong grasp of history has never been so important. For you, why is studying history important at this particular moment?


Louis Moore (LM): That’s a good question. As a history professor I have to wrestle with this all the time, but in general, studying history tells us who we are as a nation, whether you’re talking about the president or local disputes about Confederate monuments. When you know history—in this case, US history—you’re able to deal with that better. I think you’re also able to understand people and treat them better.

The other part of that question that as a professor I always deal with is the job. I tell my students: Look, I can’t guarantee you a job, but there’s something about studying history that helps you out in a very practical way, about being disciplined, learning how to research, learning how to write, and just really learning about who we are as a nation. And I think that’s gonna serve a lot of people well.


JB: Your research in history has created a lot of conversation, both in academic circles and in the public sphere, and one major strand of your research is around athlete activism. Could you discuss an athlete activist you’ve found in your archival research who people might not know about, but more people should know about today?


LM: I think that there are two. One, and I write about her in a book briefly, would be Rose Robinson. She was a black woman athlete in the late 1950s who refused to race against Russia because she didn’t agree with the politics of America. Then, in 1960, she refused to pay taxes because she didn’t agree with the fact that her taxes were going to support a cold war and not her local community. And I just thought that was so brave of her, and I hope that other people, other athletes today, take that information and do more digging. I hope she gets her own story.


JB: Yes.


LM: Another athlete is John Wooten. Wooten is the connection to everything today, because if you notice, he was there in ’67 at the [Muhammad] Ali Summit, right? He was next to Ali, with Jim Brown, as complicated as Jim Brown was in the ’60s, and then people ignored it. He was there when, you know, Jim Brown was starting the Negro Industrial Economic Union (now the Black Economic Union of Greater Kansas), Brown’s organization to get money, business development, and local leadership into the black community. He was there when Jim Brown was going from city to city, and he’s also there today, and he still works within the NFL, with the Fritz Pollard Alliance [through early April 2019]. That is so cool, right? Here’s this guy who was part of the activist athlete movement in the ’60s and he’s still there, and we rarely talk about him.


JB: That’s fascinating. You know, someone else we rarely talk about but who comes up in your work is Wyomia Tyus, the four-time Olympic medalist and holder of many world records. She’s famous for having won the 100-meter dash back-to-back, in 1964 and 1968. And she was a big supporter of the Olympic Project for Human Rights around the 1968 Olympics. She’s recently published her own story, with Elizabeth Terzakis—Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story—and she comes up in this time period that you researched. Could you talk a little bit about the importance of her as well as other underappreciated woman athlete activists from history you’ve written about, besides Robinson?

LM: Women like Wyomia, who was part of the ’68 games—understanding what’s important about them really means learning about their history. Her back-to-back gold medals: that’s one of the most impressive feats in sports history, but we don’t talk about it that way, right? She did it in ’64 and ’68, so her running bridges the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement together; and she was doing this as an amateur with no sponsor. That’s just the most incredible thing. We don’t mention that, because she’s left out of the conversation about the activist athlete, because we’re so focused on men.

Reading her bio and knowing her story will finally get us to that point where we’re gonna start looking at women like Wyomia Tyus. Not just then, but now, too. It’s important to say, Look, she’s overlooked, Rose Robinson is overlooked. But we also overlook today Maya Moore and the women of the Minnesota Lynx and what they did with the Black Lives Matter movement. Recapturing that old history will allow us to start looking at these woman athletes more as activists than we do now.


JB: That’s one of the things that I think you do really well—you look at the history and then, in creative, smart ways, link it forward to woman athletes today, who, as you say, don’t get near the amount of attention they should. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about some of those modern-day woman athlete-activists you think we should be keeping our eye on today.


LM: I would say Maya Moore. One of the things she’s doing right now that intrigues me is prison reform discussion. And very few athletes are doing this. The ones who are doing this are working through the Players Coalition, who are getting money from the owners and yet are still working on the cash bail system, and Eric Reid, who is getting a lot of notoriety.

A lot of this stuff that we’re talking about, whether we’re talking about prisons or police brutality, impacts black women just the same, if not more. So it’s important for us as a society to look to women like Maya Moore or Serena Williams, especially if we claim we’re into the activist-athlete. To stop ignoring them and really give them that platform and that space.


JB: Yes. You know, speaking of being on the platform and getting the space, this past October we celebrated the 50-year anniversary of the Mexico City Summer Olympics, where Tommie Smith and John Carlos protested racial injustice in the United States and around the world. As everybody knows, they thrust their black-gloved fists into the Mexico City sky while they were on the medal stand, while next to them white Australian sprinter Peter Norman stood in solidarity wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights button. Wyomia Tyus was there as well, supporting those athletes—she was in the stadium when they put their fists in the air. Recently, in an article for Black Perspectives, you wrote, “For fifty years, the image of Black men with their black fists in the air has continued to grip an America that still grapples with celebrating Black athletes while treating Black people as second-class citizens.” Could you expand on what you meant by this? Also, Smith and Carlos were attacked viciously for taking this stand on the world stage, yet today they’re widely revered, with President Barack Obama even celebrating them at the White House. What does all this say about cultural memory and history?


Black Athletes, Black Activists

By Jules Boykoff

LM: Whether we are talking about Major Taylor, a top cyclist at the turn of the century, or Jesse Owens or Joe Louis or John Carlos or Tommie Smith—when we talk about black athletes, we tend to celebrate their individual success and their determination. As a nation we insist there’s a ton of opportunities in America, but at the same time we tend to ignore the hardships.

So Major Taylor: there’s a brand-new Hennessey commercial about him, which essentially says the only competition he had was with himself. Which completely ignores the fact that he was Jim Crow’d out of the sport, completely ignores the fact that his neighbors in Massachusetts tried to keep him from buying a house. Major Taylor was a cyclist in the 1890s, the early 1900s, when cycling was the most popular sport; he was a black cyclist who came up from poverty, and he was the greatest cyclist in the world at that time. He was really one of the first African American athletes we presented to the world. We tend to use that to say something about us: here, in a Jim Crow society, where there’s lynching of black men, one every four days, we’re able as a nation to hold up a Major Taylor to suggest that somehow there’s individual opportunity, when that’s not actually the case. And the Hennessey commercial reinforces that notion. Taylor is one of those athletes who, as famous as he was, as well liked as he was, still had trouble buying a house in the neighborhood he wanted. And that says a lot about who we are, right? This famous black athlete still couldn’t buy the house that he wanted.

Or the stuff about John Carlos and Tommie Smith. They resonate with us so much because they’re some of the few athletes who publicly said, No more. You’re not gonna use us to celebrate this America that’s not true to us. That’s why a lot of people got upset with them at that moment, because it told on us. But at the same time they’re celebrated because they’re older, and we feel so distant from that moment and we just think as a nation that we’re past that, and we’re really not. I think that’s why it’s so important that John Carlos is still out there speaking today. Tommie really doesn’t like public stuff, but when they speak, we listen. When they talk about Kap and when they support Kap, we listen.

And the same thing with someone like Bill Russell, a star basketball player from the 1950s and ’60s. Who kneeled, what, about a year ago? There’s a picture of him kneeling with his Presidential Medal of Freedom. So on the one hand, a lot of people got annoyed by his politics in the ’60s, when local fans broke into his house and shat on his bed when he was away. But now he gets this Presidential Medal of Freedom, and when he kneels in support of Kap, it’s important. That idea that this is the greatest champion ever and he was treated like that, but now we celebrate him and here he is supporting Kap—what hasn’t changed in these 50 years that as a nation we need to start dealing with?


JB: Yes, absolutely. Let’s pivot, then, to Colin Kaepernick, a name we’ve been hearing a lot in the news over the last few years. Despite many signs of unity among NFL players, recently we’ve seen some difference of opinion involving Kaepernick, Eric Reid, Malcolm Jenkins, and the Players Coalition. Can you talk a little bit about what differentiates people like Eric Reid from, say, Malcolm Jenkins, or how Colin Kaepernick’s language diverges from the kind of language we hear from the Players Coalition? And what’s your take on such differences? Steven A. Smith, the well-known ESPN commentator, was arguing at one point that this sort of disagreement between black athletes should stay behind the scenes so as to put a unified face forward to the general public. What do you think about all that?


Beautiful Games?

By Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

LM: I think that their public dialogue is healthy; both sides are doing great work. They have their differences, but you can’t argue with Malcolm Jenkins and the Players Coalition trying to deal with cash bail, Malcolm Jenkins and the Players Coalition trying to deal with police-community relationships. At the same time, I think Eric Reid is right to call them out and say, Wait a minute, you’re taking owners’ money here, and I think you’re trying to silence us, right? I think Eric Reid is right in trying to call them out. Here we’re trying to have this seat at the table, but the issue is Kap and he’s not there.

That’s important for us to hear as a community. And to know people fight and bicker all the time. If we’re talking about activist athletes in the ’60s, it wasn’t always clean. There’s the 1965 AFL boycott of New Orleans, where 22 black players boycotted the all-star game to protest discrimination in the city. Not every black athlete wanted to be a part of it, but the lesson from that successful boycott was they all eventually got on board. And when they do all get on board, that’s where their power is.

Right now, the difference between these athletes (especially in football, there’s so many of them) is that they are a bit divided on what to do: Do we kneel, do we link arms, do we just try to get the seat at the table with the owners, do we try to get the seat at the table locally? At a certain point they all have to either get on the same page or get out of the main group’s way. As soon as the owners see that they’re divided, they’re gonna pounce on them. That’s what happened with the Players Coalition.


JB: Ghosting behind all this is Colin Kaepernick, who is apparently still keeping in shape should a team wish to pick him up. He’s been selective about when he speaks out publicly, and I think in some ways he has used that relative silence to his advantage. When he does speak, it carries more volume. In September 2018 he announced a sponsorship deal with Nike. What is your take on the relationship between Kaepernick and Nike, as well as on his decision to stay relatively silent?


LM: Look, I’m not paying his bills, so I can’t tell him what to do. But, outside looking in, it just felt weird, right? Here’s somebody who one would think would be more critical of Nike’s practices, sweatshop labor conditions, for instance. You would think he would be more critical about really being used by Nike. That first Nike commercial doesn’t really say anything about the protests or why he’s not in the league. I wish Nike would have done that, but they’re kind of subtle in how they approach these things. You see commercials with LeBron where he’s playing some Public Enemy in the background. You’ve seen other Nike commercials where they’re talking about sports and democracy. It just felt a little bit weird allowing this huge multibillion-dollar capitalist company to take over this movement.

On his silence too I’m a little bit weird. It’s his life. But sometimes when you’re silent it allows others to speak—and I wish he would speak out more, especially during this past election cycle. We know he didn’t vote in the 2016 election cycle. It was alarming when he divulged that he wasn’t even registered to vote. How are you using your platform? Are you using it to register these kids to vote, so as to have power within the community? How far does that know-your-rights campaign go? And then also really speak out, like on how he’s being dogged out by the NFL. I understand that there’s a court case going on, but he’s so articulate and smart. Having his voice consistently on about him being blackballed would be beneficial not only to him but to others looking at this, to really call out the NFL for what they’re doing.


JB: Fascinating. Sticking with football for a second: Kaepernick is, of course, a black quarterback. Recently you wrote on The Shadow League that when people discuss the quarterback position, race always hovers in the air. First, I was hoping you could talk a little bit about what you mean by that. And second, how can discussing the black quarterback in the mediasphere be positive and how can it be destructive?


Stadium Arts

By Miles Osgood

LM: The first comment is just me admitting to the fact—and hopefully I will admit to the fact—that you can’t see the black quarterback without seeing he’s a black quarterback, right? It’s a very loaded term. We need to be honest that for so long, seeing the black quarterback means seeing someone who’s gonna run, somebody who maybe people don’t think should be a quarterback, like a Lamar Jackson. Or what they say about Deshaun Watson, how he still just can’t win the big one. I don’t think those are raceless conversations; any conversation that we have about the black quarterback is not a race-neutral conversation. I hope we have these conversations acknowledging that race is the central issue when we’re talking about that. And we do the same thing with the white quarterback. It’s hard to have a conversation about Drew Brees without acknowledging that he’s white, but we tend to do that. So I just wish we’d be better at that.

How we talk about the black quarterback could be destructive in the sense that, if we’re not honest about ourselves and about the history of sports and how we tend to stack and how we tend to look at black athletes in general as more athletic and, you know, leaders or thinkers. But just talking about them and being honest about where we’re coming from is very helpful. As a fan, I’m fascinated, because so much of where the quarterback is going is these elite camps. Yes, you’ll still see guys who come from poverty, who come from essentially nothing; there’s no elite training camp for them. But they’re making a way out of no way, and every step of the way they’re proving doubters wrong.

What’s so cool about Patrick Mahomes, essentially, is that he is this kind of gunslinger. He’s Drew Brees, he’s Aaron Rogers, he’s Brett Favre, right? Yet when we talk about that gunslinger mentality, we typically only do that for the white quarterback. To be able to see a black quarterback who can just sling it across the field, I think that’s important. How do we put Patrick Mahomes in that conversation? Especially when so much about the black quarterback gets reduced to his athleticism. It’s not bad, but Mahomes is this guy who finally gets to be that person who’s just out there, saying, I want to throw this ball 70 yards, I’m gonna throw this no-look pass right here. I don’t think any black quarterback has been able to just do that. Just be free to feel like he can throw a no-look pass, like he can throw a left-handed pass and then the next play throw a 70-yard bomb. That’s the beauty of watching Mahomes.


JB: You’re super active on Twitter, and you’re really fun to follow. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about how you approach Twitter—bringing in news clips from the historical archives to deepen online discussions, especially at a time when bringing history into the discussion is often lambasted as sort of what-about-ism. You also create story maps that put those clips to use, and this gets at one element of your role as a public intellectual. Could you talk about the thinking behind what you do on Twitter?


LM: I just try to share honestly. When I’m not goofing off, I look at Twitter as the classroom. I understand that as a professor, as someone who researches, I have access to a lot of newspapers and time to do the research. So I’m out there sharing. I’m always hoping I don’t step on anyone’s research, but I also know that I’m getting a lot of black newspapers—a lot of newspapers that we don’t tend to look at for their sports content or for the history content—and I put it out there with that intention to teach. I often don’t comment on it a lot, I just say, Here’s this primary source I found. I might say one or two sentences, and that allows the public to look at it and make references for themselves and to learn that way. So whenever I research anything with newspapers I get the editorial section, and I always get the sports section. And I get the editorial section so I can go back and look at letters to the editor and the political cartoons. Obviously I get the sports section because that’s what I do. I’m not using all this stuff, so let me just share some of the stuff that I’m not gonna use.


JB: As I mentioned, your Twitter profile is one element of your role as a public intellectual. What do you think the role of the public intellectual is today? What’s the thinking behind how you approach being a public intellectual? And who are some of the public intellectuals whose work you admire?


Athlete Activists

By Jules Boykoff

LM: I really like what Keisha Blain is doing. She’s setting the template for what we should be doing as intellectuals. She’s helped create a lane with Black Perspectives and with her own writing to give us an outlet. Someone like Dave Zirin is really good about connecting sports to politics. I like Kevin Kruse, oh man. He’s nothing but facts. And so I try to do that with sports and primary sources. The role for historians as public intellectuals is to keep people honest, and to tell the story about who we are as a nation through our work. For that Twitter has been so amazing: it’s free, it’s quick, it’s easy. We don’t have to worry about getting into our jargon, and I think that’s helped a lot of us.

I’ve learned that people—and this is good for me—people actually like history and people actually need history. That’s why I tend to put out a lot of it. I tend to put out the primary resource, because I know that people want it and people appreciate that. So for the anniversary of the March on Washington I posted an editorial from a Mobile newspaper, just something I had found in my research archives looking at something for football. And it did pretty real. Chelsea Clinton retweeted it; if she’s seeing what we’re putting out there, that’s a pretty big deal.


JB: It places what’s happening now into historical perspective in ways that are helpful.


LM: Right, right. Another way to put what’s happening now in a historical perspective is putting out old stuff and saying this happened 50 years ago and this happened 60 years ago. What I tend to do is back away, because it is a primary source and people should be able to interpret it the way they interpret it, the way they want to interpret it. Just boom, here it is, one or two sentences, this is what happened 50 years ago, 60 years ago, 70 years ago. And then let me step away and let you do the work.


This article was commissioned by Ben Platt. icon

Featured image: Louis Moore. Photograph courtesy of Louis Moore