Colin Kaepernick famously took a knee against police brutality in 2016. The #MeToo movement reached the sports world in 2018 and exposed repulsive misconduct in many spheres. After the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police in 2020, strikes and civic engagement from almost all corners of the sports world, especially the WNBA, swept the nation. In short, modern activism in sports is at an unprecedented level, professor Frank Guridy said at the start of Monday’s Athlete Activism webinar.
Columbia Athletics kicked off a series of social conversations to be held in the winter and spring with a webinar on athlete activism. The discussion was moderated by Guridy and featured a panel of three alumni: Alton Byrd, CC ’79; Nzingha Prescod, CC ’15; and Tyler Holmes, CC ’18. Drawing on their personal experiences at Columbia and from their work post-graduation, the former athletes gave listeners a deeper understanding of the state of activism in sports, its limitations, and its continued importance in the quest for social justice.
Guridy, who specializes in sport history, urban history, and the history of the African diaspora in the Americas, began the webinar by contextualizing the conversation on athlete activism, which first emerged on a large scale in the late 1960s and early 1970s before exploding to an extraordinary level in the last decade. Perhaps the most impressive part of the sports activism movement, Guridy said, is that it has extended far beyond the professional and collegiate levels to grassroots movements touching people on an individual level.
Byrd, a former 3-time first-team all-Ivy League basketball player, has experience with many forms of activism. Although he is now the vice president of growth properties for the NBA G League Long Island Nets and esports team Nets GC, he has witnessed firsthand the progression of athlete activism for over fifty years, in part by working with a community program with the Long Island Nets to combat racism in high school sports.
The activism of Prescod, a Brooklyn native, was shaped by his growing up as one of the only Black students and fencers at New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School. The Olympic-level fencer currently works to make the sport more accessible through her Fencing in the Park program. She studies sports policy to investigate systems that mistreat people of color and make change on the structural level.
Holmes attended Columbia at the start of the new wave of athlete activism. Inspired by Kaepernick and other social movements at the time, he was one of the first athletes at Columbia to take a knee during the national anthem to call attention to racial inequality and police brutality. Now a teacher, business owner, and New York City civil rights group Strategy for Black Lives member, he continues to speak up against the “shut up and dribble” rhetoric that he protested years ago.
From big-name unity to grassroots organizations, athlete activism takes on multiple forms, as evidenced by the unique career paths Byrd, Prescod, and Holmes have pursued. When discussing their experiences in their fight for social justice, the three panelists emphasized the multifaceted nature of athlete activism. Prescod emphasized the importance of dissecting the systems in place and seeking change at a structural level to root out discriminatory practices. In addition, Holmes noted that athletes who use their platforms to speak out against perceived injustices can inspire an entire generation. Byrd said that he’s proud of the progress the sports community has achieved so far due to increased pressure from various kinds of athlete activism.
“There is far less fear about putting pressure on systems. There is more pressure on education, on people to understand there’s a lineage and legacy that has come with racism and bias against women. … There’s across the board support, younger audiences, kids who are 10, 11, 12 having conversations that never in my lifetime would I think they’d be ready to have,” Byrd said.
One important change that has emerged is the normalization of athletic protest, Prescod said, even at the Olympic level. Athlete protests during games can open the door to conversations, Holmes said, and seeing the rest of the sports world united can feel like there are millions of like-minded people backing one’s attempts to alter the status quo.
At the same time, the panelists agreed that athlete activism has limits. Activists must also hold institutions accountable for their responsibility to support athlete activism, Guridy said, while responding substantively, avoiding substituting virtue signalling for change.
One path to genuine organizational change, Byrd said, relies on ownership groups understanding the impact their organization has on their surrounding communities. Indeed, Byrd’s current group, BSE Global, focuses on trying to buck that trend: the company understands the legacy of sports in Brooklyn and invests in its local community, Byrd said.
The panelists believe that for activists who don’t lead sports organizations, more pressure is often needed to achieve change. Although it is disheartening to see increased diversity and fair treatment occur solely as a result of pressure, the panelists shared a “better late than never” sentiment.
The three panelists’ long-term goals were also shaped by their time at Columbia. Byrd entered Columbia when the height of 1960s activism coincided with a new “golden era” of Ivy League sports and frequently volunteered with the rest of his team in Harlem. More recently, Prescod and Holmes have been struck by how many fellow Black students were vocal about activism. Columbia’s academic environment provided them with the resources they needed to further extend the activism in sports conversations. Holmes was a member of the group that put consistent pressure on the administration to add new classes and departments, as he believed that the University itself was not perfect in terms of racial equality and curriculum topics.
The panelists left listeners with some key takeaways, emphasizing that athlete activism is currently at its peak and Columbia students are more than fit to champion the push for equality. Holmes advised athletes to take advantage of Columbia’s opportunities by joining leadership groups and branching out into different spheres. Prescod suggested learning more about governance and working with others to influence the higher-level decisions that ultimately set the precedent for justice. Byrd insisted that one should not simply look at activism as just protesting; rather, it is equally about uplifting those who are disadvantaged. In the end, Byrd said, athlete activism is trying to ensure that “anything other than fair and equitable opportunities to do what you love” is not acceptable.