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Hot Topic: First Amendment Free Speech (Wayne College): Athlete Activism

This guide explores and provides a starting point for your research on The First Amendment Right of Free Speech. This guide highlights free speech on college campuses, hate speech and athlete activism.

Supreme Court Cases

"To believe the patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds"

West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette 
319 U.S. 624 (1943)

In this 1943 case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a school would violate the free speech rights of its student, a Jehovah's Witness, if  the school forced him to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

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Athlete activism and Freedom of Speech

  • Jackie Robinson (1957) joined picket lines and attended civil rights rallies.
    • "I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag. I know that I am a Black man in a white world."
  • Roberto Clemente and teammates from Pittsburgh Pirates (1968) voted to sit out the opening game to attend Dr. Martin King's Funeral.
  • Muhammad Ali opposed the Vietnam War and refused to serve in the Army (1967).
    • "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?"
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar refused to play in the U S Olympic for the shooting of African Americans by police (1967).
  • Track & Field athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith participated in the Olympic games and gave the Black Power salute when the national anthem was played during the medal ceremony (1968).
    • "A lot of the [Black] athletes thought that winning [Olympic] medals would supersede or protect them from racism. But even if you won a medal, it ain’t going to save your momma. It ain’t going to save your sister or children. It might give you 15 minutes of fame, but what about the rest of your life?"
  • Dave Meggyesy from St Louis Cardinals (1966-69) was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. He was told to not to speak out and was benched for his views.
  • Tom Seaver from New York Mets paid for ads expressing his opposition to the Vietnam War.
  • Billie Jean King (1972), almost a year before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling, signed an ad in the first issue of Ms. magazine, “We Have Had Abortions,” speaking out for reproductive rights for women. 
  • Carlos Delgado from Toronto Blue Jays (2004) decided to sit in the dugout during the 7th inning song "God Bless America" because he expressed the belief that the song was being used to justify ongoing military intervention in the Middle East.
  • Lebron James and the Miami Heat wore hoodies to support Trayvon Martin (2012).
  • Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez refused to stay at a Trump hotel (2016).

(Dreier, P. (2017, September 28). Athletes and activism. American Prospect Magazine )





Debate: Athletes and the National Anthem

The NFL players’ protest around the National Anthem is a debate about:

  •  Athletes who are viewed as role models and their duty to bring positive social change.
  • Athletes, who are private employees, are not protected by the First Amendment.  However, contracts and bargaining units can provide or restrict their legal rights to express their freedom of expression.
  • The First Amendment right of freedom of expression. The Supreme Court has ruled that a citizen has a right to refuse to participate in a public act of patriotism.
  • Does the act of " not standing" during the National Anthem cause "harm" or "danger" or can it be seen as disrespecting the military and the country?


Take A Knee

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. ... There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust [that] people aren’t being held accountable for. And that’s something that needs to change. That’s something this country stands for—freedom, liberty, justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now."

 -Colin Kaepernick 2017

Stand up for the Flag

"I believe our flag is more than just cloth and ink. It is a universally recognized symbol that stands for liberty, and freedom. It is the history of our nation, and it's marked by the blood of those who died defending it."  John Thune