Don't Hate the Player: A History of Political Statements in Sports

With the Iranian National Soccer Team sporting armbands, we look back at the history of athletes taking a stand.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Yesterday, in a show of solidarity with pro-democracy demonstrators in their native country, Iranian soccer players sported green armbands at a World Cup qualifying match. Even though armbands probably won't win the Iranians a new regime election, we still commend the players for their ballsy move (especially since they failed to qualify for the Cup).

Sporting events have long been a podium for politically-minded athletes to make a statement about injustice or oppression (ever since Moses wrote "Let me people go" on his headband prior to Super Bowl 1300 BC). As a salute to the courage of the Iranian soccer team, we take a look at The History of Athletes Taking a Stand at Sporting Events...


Tommie Smith and John Carlos
• After placing first and third in the 200 meter race in the 1968 Olympics, U.S. runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" to protest centuries of racism in their home country. The duo walked off the field to a chorus of boos, but have since become icons of sports protest.


Toni Smith
• In a 2003 game against Mount St. Mary, Manhattanville basketball player Toni Smith turned her back during the "Star Spangled Banner" to protest "the inequalities that are embedded into the American system." The crowd of more than 500 jeered at Smith and spent most of the game chanting "U-S-A," "Leave our country," and "Only bad Tonys spell their name with an 'i'."


Henry Olonga
Zimbabwean cricket player Henry Olonga sported a black armband in the 2003 Cricket World Cup to protest his president Robert Mugabe's government, saying he wanted to, "stop the abuse of human rights in Zimbabwe." Apparently, Mugabe wasn't one for trash-talking and issued a warrant for Olonga's arrest on the charge of treason, punishable by death in Zimbabwe. Olonga would be forced into early retirement and temporary hiding.


Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf
• In the 1996 NBA season, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (a.k.a. Chris Jackson) refused to stand for the national anthem before games, citing the American flag as a symbol for tyranny and oppression. The NBA responded with a one game suspension, followed by a compromise that forced Mahmoud to stand for the anthem, but allowed him to close his eyes and recite a Muslim prayer.


Flashing for Fines
Seville soccer player Fredi Kanouté celebrated in controversial fashion after scoring against Deportive, lifting his jersey to expose a shirt displaying the word "Palestine." For his stunt, Kanouté was booked by the ref and fined $4,000 for "revealing messages of a religious or political nature on the pitch during the time of play." He was later sued by Beavis for "teepee for my bunghole freakout" copyright infringement.


Brandon Marshall
• This past football season, Denver Broncos player Brandon Marshall was about to put on a symbolic white glove painted half-black to celebrate Barack Obama's election, before teammate Brandon Stokley stopped him. According to Marshall, Stokley told him the game was too close and the Broncos couldn't afford a penalty, although the two were allegedly seen sharing a black and white cookie and singing "Kumbaya" after their postgame svitz.


Carlos Delgado
Delgado incurred the wrath of the Bronx when he protested the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq by remaining in the dugout for the singing of "God Bless America" during the seventh inning stretch of a game at Yankee Stadium in 2004. Delgado got cool with the wars in 2006, however, after he was traded to the crosstown Mets.


Shunning Adolf
• During the opening ceremonies of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, athletes from the U.S., Estonia, and Finland declined to give the traditional Olympic salute to Adolf Hitler, deeming it a little too similar to the "Heil Hitler" salute. The U.S., including a distinctly non-Aryan Jesse Owens, would go on to figuratively flip off the Fuhrer by dominating the Games.


Rick Monday
• Cubs outfielder Rick Monday foiled the plot of two anti-war protesters attempting to burn an American flag during a 1976 game at Dodgers Stadium. Despite being a visiting player, Monday received a standing ovation before his next at bat.

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