A panel of Bruins, past and present, assembled in Schoenberg Hall to celebrate Jackie Robinson’s 100th birthday and discuss his dual legacy as an athlete and champion of social justice and activism.
The discussion was moderated by SportsCenter anchor Cari Champion. The panel was comprised of LGBTQ rights activist and former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, UCLA women’s soccer player Kaiya McCullough, sports curator of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture Damion Thomas, and Vice Provost of UCLA Undergraduate Education and professor of African American Studies Patricia Turner.
The panel discussed a myriad of issues centered around social activism and politics in sports and society today.
“I really get upset when I hear that sports and politics don’t mix; that’s the biggest lie that’s ever been told,” Champion said. “The relationship between politics and sports is so prevalent and so obvious – that’s how it’s been and that’s how it’ll always be.”
Thomas added that sports in America have been ideologically entwined with politics at a foundational level since they began.
“People don’t think about sports as containing ideological content; they think about sports that’s something about fun and games or enjoyment, but that actually makes it an important vehicle to transmit messages,” Thomas said. “In the United States, sports are such an integral part of our educational system; the American sports myth is the idea that sports teaches values, discipline and character, and we attribute all of this socializing to sports.”
Occasionally, the panel compared and contrasted the experiences of modern athletes with the experiences of Robinson and tennis player Arthur Ashe.
“At the age that you’re at when you’re an athlete, you’re not out there leading or designing a movement,” Turner said. “Ashe and Robinson and others (got) involved as the civil rights movement was unfolding, and people were turning to them because of their visibility. Both responded in different ways, but they gave their voices and wrote checks.”
In 2012, Kluwe spoke out against a proposed Minnesota state constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage in the state. Although the amendment was defeated and same-sex marriage was legalized in the state six months later, Kluwe found himself out of a job following two of the best seasons of his career.
“The NFL has the weakest players’ union of any of the major sports,” Kluwe said. “In order for the NFL to change, they have to view athletes speaking out on social issues as more profitable to their bottom line than keeping those athletes silent; that’s not going to change unless the people who put money in the owners’ pockets want that to change.”
Since his retirement, Kluwe has remained active in the Huntington Beach, California, community as a continued supporter of LGBTQ rights and as a stay-at-home father for his daughters, while his wife works as a social worker.
Champion and the panel continually highlighted the movement initiated by Colin Kaepernick and how his treatment by the NFL differed from similar situations in other leagues, such as the NBA. McCullough is one of many athletes who has followed in Kaepernick’s example and has led a similar movement among the women’s soccer team at UCLA.
“My call to action (was when) I saw on Twitter another video of another unarmed black man being shot; I just remember breaking down into tears,” McCullough said. “I was blessed that my coaches and my team had a really candid discussion and they tried to empathize with me; for me, that’s what it’s all about, empathy.”
The panel also offered ways to get involved in causing social change, with options that range from attending local school board meetings to engaging in civil rights-era protest methods.
“The thing is, if you want to be a part of forcing social change, you have to accept the fact that it will be dangerous and there will be consequences because you have to do things that make people uncomfortable,” Kluwe said. “Get involved with your local groups, try not to do anything that puts you on an FBI watchlist, but understand that in order to change things, you have to actually want to change them and that comes with consequences.”