Athletes vs. Injustice: Protests in Sports

When N.F.L. players, starting with Colin Kaepernick, took a knee during the National Anthem to protest they ignited an uproar over injecting politics onto the playing field.

When N.F.L. players starting with Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police mistreatment of African-Americans, their actions ignited an uproar over injecting politics onto the playing field. Their protest had surprising ties to the silent black-power salute by two sprinters at the 1968 Olympics.

View full episodes at

Previous versions
At Retro Report, we update our journalism as news unfolds. Here are the previous published versions of this story.
For teachers
  • Producer: Matthew Spolar
  • Editor: Brian Kamerzel

For Educators


This 11-minute video tells the story of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, their raised-fist Black Power salute on the medal podium during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, and the consequences they went on to face. This video shows the development of the civil rights protests of the 1960s, and how the cultural context of that decade led to a wave of protests by athletes. It illustrates how the cultural context of the 1980s caused a decline in political consciousness among athletes. Finally it addresses how recent shootings and misconduct by police officers have fueled a resurgence of athlete activism. The video includes footage and discussion of Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and O.J. Simpson. It will help students understand the complexities and challenges that black athletes face on the public stage. Students will learn how the modern take-a-knee protest movement, started by Colin Kaepernick, is directly linked to the Olympics protest in 1968.

Background reading

The protests in 2016 by Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback, may have been regarded by some NFL fans as outrageous and un-American, but they were deeply rooted in American history.

Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 broke the color barrier in major league baseball. That moment drew rage and harassment from many fans and teams, but made race a part of the national conversation.

By the 1960s, celebrity athletes like the boxer Muhammad Ali were using their professional success to focus attention on civil rights, poverty, and even the Vietnam War – and generating intense public backlash.

That set the stage for Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics. In the 200-meter race, Smith won the gold and Carlos the bronze, then both used the medal ceremony to raise a clenched fist – the symbol of Black Power – as the United States national anthem played.

The action stunned the stadium crowd of some 50,000, with millions around the globe watching on television.

Olympics organizers accused Smith and Carlos of “politicizing” the games, and expelled them. They were sent home, where they encountered intense media backlash and even death threats from those who viewed their actions as unpatriotic.

But millions of African-Americans and others saw Smith and Carlos as heroes who had sacrificed their professional careers to draw attention to the racism roiling America after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

It was that context that Kaepernick was drawing on when he took a knee to protest police mistreatment of African-Americans, setting off a national conversation about race.

Lesson Plan 1: Respectful Conversations in Schools – Patriotism

Students will learn about protests in the 1960s among black athletes including Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and members of the 1968 U.S. Olympics team, and how their actions relate to modern protestors like Colin Kaepernick.

  • How the rhetoric and tactics of the civil rights movement developed within the domain of sports.
  • How the expansion and contraction of protest movements is affected by larger shifts in the culture.
  • How protests by black athletes in recent years are directly connected to the protests of previous generations of black athletes.
  • How police shootings are related to the modern wave of athletes’ protest.
Essential questions
  • How were the American sprinters Smith and Carlos punished for their protest at the Olympics?
  • What events in 1968 affected the decision of Smith and Carlos to protest at the Olympics?
  • How are the protests of the American sprinters at the 1968 Olympics directly related to Colin Kaepernick’s protest in recent years?
  • How has police misconduct incited a modern wave of protest among Black athletes?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.His.14.9-12.Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.
    • D2.His.1.9-12.Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Topic 8.11: The Civil Rights Movement Expands

      · Skill 5.B: Explain how a historical development or process relates to another historical development or process.

      ·Theme 8: Social Structures (SOC)