“History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals.” -James Baldwin
The Eagles have celebrated their first national championship since 1960 and their first Super Bowl victory. Although I chose not to watch a single game this year, and harbored secret hopes that the Eagles would sign Kaepernick, I was happy to read about the growing activism of members of the Eagles.
Activism by professional athletes is an important part of our legacy and even a cursory look at Black History can help people understand the role that athletes have played to call out oppression and bring about social change.
Malcolm Jenkins, Lane Johnson, Chris Long, and others have protested police violence, protested during the “national” anthem, engaged policy makers, and donated money to our cash-strapped district that is still suffering from our state legislature’s inequitable decisions in school funding.
All-year long, Malcolm Jenkins has been writing columns for The Philadelphia Citizen, some of which I distributed to our students. Working to elevate awareness of the massive injustices in Philadelphia’s and America’s criminal justice system, Jenkins, not only wrote, but also traveled with Long and others to the capital to promote legislation that could give low-level nonviolent offenders a “Clean Slate” to support them in being able to work and contribute to society. Jenkins joined Black Lives Matter activists in lobbying for bail system reform and demanded that our state end the life without parole sentencing for juveniles.
Sports as Social Justice
Sports provides myriad opportunities for conscious educators to discuss how athletes who have embraced activism use their platforms to resist America’s racism and white supremacy—publicly and loudly.
Educators can use lessons to help students notice the patterns of racism, bigotry, and inequity, and help them to dismantle it.
For example, you’d be hard pressed to find a Black person who was shocked that after the Eagles won the Super Bowl and some White people were seen “celebrating” like some type of fanatic, they weren’t met with tanks, tear gas, and violence. Juxtapose that image with one of Black people protesting the state sanctioned murder of unarmed Black people by police in the streets of this country.
Black Lives Matter President (New York) Hawk Newsome told Newsweek:
Somehow, it seems there’s a line drawn in the sand where destruction of property because of a sports victory is OK and acceptable in America. However, if you have people who are fighting for their most basic human right, the right to live, they will be condemned.
Educators, there’s so much to dive into:
- Exploitation of Black bodies
- Double standard in how police respond to Black civic unrest and riots from gleeful sports fanatics
- Super wealthy White folks’ attempts to marginalize and silence Black protests
- Concussions, brain injuries
- College, profits, and Black athletes
The School-to-Activism Pipeline
While our students are growing up hearing #45 call any athlete who protested police violence during an anthem (that wasn’t created for the nation, but solely for land owning White men) a “son of a bitch,” that should be fired, resisters of all shape and professions have to step up.
Educators and activists play a role in ensuring students are on the school-to-activism pipeline. This can be done by diving into conversations that help them to connect the dots, learn from others’ experiences, and practice activism in their own ways.
Just like racism and apathy aren’t just images and words in history textbooks, neither is the activism of some professional athletes. As we tell our students, no matter what your profession, you can lead and serve in your community. Black History is yours to make.
Thank you to the Eagles who found ways to demonstrate this to our students.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.