David SteeleDec 12, 2023
It Was Always a Choice
Picking Up the Baton of Athlete Activism
Temple University Press 2022
Today we are joined by the sports journalist David Steele, who has written for the Sporting News, AOL, the Baltimore Sun and the San Francisco Chronicle, and won awards from the National Association of Black Journalists, the Association of Black Media Workers, the Associated Press Sports Editors, and the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also the author of It Was Always a Choice: Picking up the Baton of Athlete Activism (Temple UP, 2022). In our conversation, we discuss the beginnings of black athlete activism in the 20th century, the different approaches pursued by black and white athletes across the century, and whether or not athletes should use their privileged position to promote positive change in the world.
In It Was Always A Choice, Steele explores two interconnected histories: the longer durée story of black athlete activism in the 20th and 21st centuries, beginning with Jack Johnson in the 1910s, and the history of the Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protests and how contemporary athlete activists have engaged with the broader Black Lives Matter movement.
The book moves both chronologically and thematically, alternating between past and contemporary activist moments to tie them together. His chapters centre on specific questions: “Your Presence Is an Act of Protest: Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, and Jackie Robinson” looks at American sports idols and illustrates the significant challenges that they faced to competition but also the limits of their protest. In their case, their presence was often the only kind of protest available to them. In some instances – for example Jesse Owen’s case – they later stood up against the more radical protests of the 1960s.
Steele was influenced by Kaepernick’s protest and the Black Lives Matter movement to write the book, and that alone would have been an interesting story, but the real strength of the work is how he finds the echoes of these movements in earlier radical efforts by male and female black athletes to change American society. He makes references in many chapters to Tommie Smith and John Carlos, whose work with the Olympic Project for Human Rights and raised fist protest acted as a spiritual predecessor to Colin Kaepernick’s protest. He also notes early flag protests such as Eroseanna “Rose” Robinson’s refusal to stand for the US National Anthem during the 1959 Pan America Games.
His work also points out the ways that athlete activists have succeeded and failed to change the broader culture. Although black athletes have won significantly inside of sporting organizations, Colin Kaepernick’s protests have highlighted how far American society still must go. The WNBA might be the most progressive league: the Atlanta Dream’s players forced out an owner that they opposed and then successfully campaigned against her running for the US Senate.
It Was Always A Choice raises interesting questions about the nature of athlete protests. Steele’s chapter “Peter Norman, Chris Long, and Gregg Popovich: White Allies” shows the ways that white athletes can support their black teammates and players; some members of the public and sporting leagues seem more receptive to the Black Lives Matter message from white athletes. Steele offers a strong but nuanced criticism of Micheal Jordan, OJ Simpson and Tiger Woods who “dropped the baton” and privileged their own financial success over their politics. White House visits both offer opportunities for the government to promote the popularity of the president but also a chance for athletes to protest against them.
Steele’s work demands that athletes (and readers) make a choice. It is a must read for people interested in the history of athlete protest and as a whole or in individual chapters it would be useful for teaching the history of sport.
Keith Rathbone is a Senior Lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He researches twentieth-century French social and cultural history.