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A Conversation With History & African-American Studies Professor Amira Rose Davis

Professor Amira Rose Davis has dedicated a portion of her life to studying activism within sports. A lot of her work here at Penn State revolves around the intersection between race, gender, sports, and politics. Her podcast, Burn It All Down, also focuses on sports through a feminist lens.

It is undeniable that recent events across the country have led athletes to take a stand against the racial and social injustices that have affected Black men and women for centuries.

We sat down with Davis to discuss the history of protests in sports, why it seems like leagues dominated by women are often the loudest champions for social justice, and why society should retire the “sports need to stay out of politics” argument.

Onward State: Many movements in sports stemmed from the murder of unarmed Black men and women recently. How do they compare to similar movements of the past?

Amira Rose Davis: There are a few parallels and there are a few things that are different of this iteration of athletic activism. The parallels that you can see, unfortunately, are the continuous needs of having to be outspoken about systemic racism. There are similarities with the debates of how to go about sharing that message. The conversation of whether to boycott or play has been a constant one in history.

Leading up to the 1968 Olympics, the Olympic Project For Human Rights forced this conversation to happen leading up to the games. The conversation throughout 1967 was if Black athletes would have more of an impact boycotting the games, or going to the Olympics and staging a protest there. People like Lew Alcindor (otherwise known as Kareem Abdul-Jabar) obviously didn’t play in the Olympics, but Tommie Smith and John Carlos did, and they used that platform to do their medal stand protest.

The similarities today are WNBA players like Natasha Cloud, Renee Montgomery, and Maya Moore opting to not play in their respective seasons. Kyrie Irving forced this conversation in the NBA, which reignited with the wildcat strike in the bubble.

The main difference is the dynamics of how professional and collegiate sports have changed. When we saw athletes try to do this in the late 60s, players at the University of Wyoming and Syracuse University were kicked off their respective teams for speaking out about the number of Black players and coaches at their respective universities.

Now, the demographics have shifted in certain sports, like basketball and football. So, when University of Missouri football says they aren’t going to play until the racist president steps down, in under 48 hours that president tended his resignation. The whole team stood up, with their white allies supporting their decision. The power structures are still trying to get power, but the state of athletic labor has shifted the conversation.

OS: The WNBA has been at the forefront of social justice movements for a while now. How can other leagues take what it’s doing and implement change?

ARD: The WNBA is a fascinating case because there are a number of lessons there. The biggest one is collectivity. The WNA has buy-in from all of the players in that league, including the white players. In most other leagues, the people shouldered with the brunt of speaking out are Black athletes. In the WNBA, the white women have been just as vocal, have understood that position in the league, and have always bought in when a teammate expresses that a particular cause is harmful to them.

They’ve also pushed their league offices, which is something that is extremely important. There’s a way to work with your league, and there’s a way where the league is going to co-opt what you are doing. Years ago, when the Minnesota Lynx were wearing black shirts and kneeling, the league was trying to fine that.

That’s a big risk, given the precarity of women’s athletics. Yet they didn’t care. One year the league would try to fine the players, and the next the theme of the season would be around donating money to sponsor charities, though none were specifically about fighting racism and police brutality. Flash forward to this season where they are playing for “Say Her Name,” and specifically for Breonna Taylor. This has been a league partnership, not just driven by the players.

This is the model that other leagues need to learn from. The WNBA has discovered that their brand is social justice and have gone all in on it, in a way some other leagues have not.

OS: Do you believe we will see any social justice moments when Penn State football returns in October?

ARD: I wouldn’t be surprised by a performative gesture. I wouldn’t be surprised by some sort of acknowledgment. What we have seen here, and in other places, is that college football has such a major power dynamic at play. The power dynamic within college football and athletics, in general, make college athletes very precarious. It’s much harder to mobilize if you’re doing it individually.

The system is very paternalistic. You have a whole structure of coaches and administrators saying, “We’re teaching you how to be adults and we want to give you a space to speak out, but we want it to be on our terms.” What I think we will see is what the terms are of the athletes and what the terms are of the powers that be.

I wouldn’t be surprised with a performative nod, but I expect it to be constrained and I expect it be some sort of “middle ground” between the players and coaches.

OS: How do you respond to people who want to keep politics out of sports?

ARD: First and foremost, sports are always political. If you’re watching the football game and they are playing the anthem or they show a military commercial during half time, that’s paid for by the Department of Defense. That is literally politics.

There is nothing that mandates the anthem being played before sports in the first place. The fact that it is there is politics. Everything about sports is already inherently political. People who want politics out of sports weren’t saying that when it aligned with their beliefs.

The statement “keep politics out of sports” really means that “I don’t want to think. I just want you to entertain me.” If you are comfortable watching and cheering Black athletes, but not comfortable with them articulating their lived experience, then you shouldn’t be cheering.

Davis’s interview is part of an ongoing Onward State series of conversations with race relations, social justice, and diversity experts at Penn State. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider reading our interviews with social justice professor Ashley Patterson, race relations professor Sam Richards, College of the Liberal Arts Dean Clarence Lang, Restorative Justice Initiative director Efrain Marimon, or Multicultural Engineering Program director Dr. Lauren Griggs.

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About the Author

Owen Abbey

Owen Abbey was a Secondary Education major before he graduated from the wonderful institution known as Penn State. When he was not writing for the blog, he enjoyed rooting for the Baltimore Orioles and Ravens, supporting Penn State basketball and softball, dreaming of all of the ways he would win the TV show "Survivor," and yes mom, actually doing school work. All of this work prepared him to teach his own class of students, which was always his true passion. He still can be found on Twitter @theowenabbey and can be reached for questions and comments at [email protected]

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