Younger sports fans may have been shocked to see players from the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers and Miami Heat wearing their warmup jerseys inside-out in silent protest against Clippers owner Donald Sterling, after a recording surfaced of a telephone call in which Sterling allegedly told his then-girlfriend not to bring African-American guests to the team’s games. Sterling subsequently was banned for life by NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
To boomers, though, the demonstrations may have seemed tepid compared with the defiant dissents of athletes we grew up with. Here’s a stroll down a memory lane lined with protest signs:
- Bill Russell. The Celtics center is most famous for leading his team to 11 NBA championships as a player and coach — but in August 1963, he was perhaps the tallest participant in the March on Washington for civil rights. Watch Russell explain 50 years later why he declined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s invitation to appear on stage with him at the march:
- Muhammad Ali. In 1967, the then-heavyweight boxing champion showed up at a military draft induction station in Houston but, objecting on religious grounds to the Vietnam War, refused to step forward when his name was called. Sentenced to prison for draft evasion and stripped of his title, Ali was ultimately vindicated, both in the courts and in the ring. He was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, by President George W. Bush in 2005.
- Maury Wills, Rusty Staub and Bob Aspromonte. In June 1968, a national day of mourning was proclaimed after the assassination of U.S. senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, but Major League Baseball figured the show should go on. In Houston, Astros players Staub and Aspromonte and the Pirates’ Wills refused to play, out of respect to Kennedy. Wills reportedly stayed in the training room and read Kennedy’s book, To Seek a Newer World.
- Tommy Smith and John Carlos. In October 1968, U.S. Olympic sprinters Smith and Carlos went to the medal stand after finishing first and third in the 200-meter run at the Olympic Games in Mexico City — and then raised gloved fists in a Black Power salute to protest racial inequities in their country. The U.S. Olympic Committee quickly suspended both runners and gave them 48 hours to leave the country, but their message was already burned into the memories of millions of TV viewers.
- Billie Jean King. In 1970, the tennis superstar and outspoken feminist — outraged because women professional players got far smaller monetary prizes than men — led a group of female athletes called the “Original 9.” They challenged the U.S. Tennis Association by setting up their own slate of tournaments. Officials reportedly threatened to ban King from Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and other Grand Slam events, but in the end, women’s tennis achieved parity through her efforts. Here’s a look at a 2012 reunion of the Original 9 in Charleston, S.C.:
- Bill Walton. The towering redhead was one of the most dominant centers in the history of college basketball, but he also was a strident antiwar activist. In May 1972, just two months after leading UCLA to a 30-0 record and an NCAA championship, Walton was among 50 students arrested for barricading entrances to the university’s main office building in a protest against the Vietnam War. “It’s very important that the [Nixon] administration know how I feel about their actions in Vietnam,” he proclaimed. Walton’s stridency didn’t keep him from winning a second title in 1973 and becoming the top pick in the NBA draft, but injuries ultimately cut short his career.
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