Black Athletes, Protest, & Rankine’s Citizen

I had a teammate who protested the anthem in the 90s…

You probably know about the controversy over the national anthem at NFL games, if not because you follow the career of Colin Kaepernick, then because the American President invoked him by implication along with players who (unlike Kap) are currently employed by teams in the NFL.

Black athletes engaging in forms of peaceful protest at sporting events is not new, but the decision to have players on the football field during a televised anthem is — at least in relative terms.

I’ve been thinking about how these controversies surface and re-emerge over time, in large part because President Trump’s recent comments dislodged something in my brain that I had forgotten about, or least, had almost forgotten about. I had a teammate in college on my basketball team who did something during the anthem — I think she faced backwards? And maybe also didn’t put her hand over her heart? I am a little embarrassed to say that I am not sure — it was a long time ago, probably around 1994, and I was fairly oblivious to a great many things going on around me. In fact, I was so busy singing the song and simultaneously contemplating what I thought was its very weird grammar, that I didn’t initially noticed what she did. I probably wouldn’t have, except that I heard one of my teammates whispering her irritation in the locker room at another time.

When this person expressed her feelings of offense, one of the upperclassmen on the team noted sagely that our teammate was a Muslim, a half-black Muslim, and that explained everything. Another player on my team protested this explanation, saying that our teammate’s anthem behavior didn’t make any sense because she was also in ROTC, an officer-training program! How could she, of all students, disrespect the flag?

I was more put off by their critical tone and gossiping than what they were describing in her actions, but I did make some effort to see what they were talking about at our next game. Whatever it was, it was not memorable enough that I can confirm what she actually did during the song. Like I said, maybe she turned the other way or didn’t put her hand up. I didn’t find that it bothered me; instead, I was impressed that she had, in today’s parlance, a thing. Doing something routinely that others didn’t do took a sort of courage and depth, I thought. During a song that a lot of us were mindlessly singing while we contemplated our game plan, she was acknowledging something complicated about America. Or maybe not. I don’t actually know, because I never asked her. I didn’t judge her — in fact, I held her in somewhat high esteem because I projected a complexity onto her simply because she was brave in being different. Still, I never asked her about it, and as far as I know, none of my teammates ever made their snarky comments to her face. Their parents may have gossiped in the stands like their daughters had in the locker room, but I’m pretty sure nobody booed, nobody made a “story” out of it for negative publicity, and women’s basketball season at my school proceeded without incident.

That was before the internet was a thing, of course, so trolling had to happen IRL and in real time rather than asynchronously and 24/7. It was before 9/11 too; I don’t want to romanticize the past, but it does seem now that it was a simpler time. Looking back on it some 23 years later, it’s not lost on me that we played in a gym named after Branch Rickey, the man famous for signing Jackie Robinson. Just last month, this tweet from Jake Tapper came across my timeline with a quotation invoking Rickey in Robinson’s 1972 autobiography, I Never had it Made:

Aside from this trip down memory lane, the President’s comments also made me think about other stories I’ve seen about black athletes, and particularly the two that are subjects for the poet Claudia Rankine. Her book Citizen: An Americal Lyric(2014), features an essay-poem about Serena Williams and photographs-staged-as-film-reels that approximate the video essay about Zinedine Zidane that she produced with John Lucas.

In the former, she writes about a Williams who is not the triumphant player we know now, but one struggling in 2009 to get a fair call, “hemmed in as any other black body thrown against our American background.” The line is a nod and repeated reference Rankine makes to a quotation from Zora Neale Hurston: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

In the latter, Rankine explores the ejection of Zinedine Zidane from the 2006 World Cup after he violently head-butts another player. Here, she also repeats lines from somebody else, this time not a black writer, but the footballer whose transcribed racial slurs provoke readers into feeling the rage that prompted the Algerian-descended Zidane to recall: “what he said touched the deepest part of me.”

The video essay reproduced in Citizen is available on youtube and here:

In her commentary on the moment, Rankine brilliantly weaves in another performance in her treatment of Zidane’s big moment, quoting from Othello. Shakespeare’s ill-fated General believes that his military achievements on behalf of Venice will ensure that Roderigo’s whining and Brabantio’s disapproval of his marriage to Desdemona will not keep him out of favor with the senators. “Let him do his spite,” he says of his detractor;
“My services which I have done the signiory / Shall out-tongue his complaints” (1.2.220–222). How quickly people turn on those they hold up as heroes, Rankine suggests; no amount of good service, good faith, or great athleticism can win over an audience who takes easy offense at “bad sportsmanship.”

I don’t know if current students at my university know much about Serena Williams in 2009 or Zinedine Zidane in 2006; although it is hard to imagine they haven’t paid at least a little attention to those who opt to “take a knee” during the anthem, I also know what it’s like to be in college and have too many other things to do to think very carefully about what such things mean. As I’ve been thinking, there were things happening right beside me that I only barely noticed and can now only vaguely recall! But this is why books like Rankine’s are so meaningful: the poems frame something that happened — in these cases, in sports — and show us what we’ve seen in ways that let us see them more clearly. My own college sports experience was distinct from those Rankine describes and from those we’re seeing now in the NFL, but I am able to see some common threads that tie them together.

Since we have the internet now, I googled my teammate, despite her relatively common name, and I found her. After college, she served for seven years in the U.S. Marine Corps. And now, she is, like me, a university professor. I don’t think I’ll go so far as to contact her, though part of me wants to ask her about our college team, what she did then and thinks now about protests during the anthem. For now, I’ll leave her alone and continue think of her as I did then and as I now think of Rankine, acknowledging something complicated about America.



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Vim, Ph.D.

Early Modernist, Associate Prof, college hoops fan, crazy cat lady. Tweeting out of conviction or exhaustion or both. Views my own. My head hurts.