Picking Up the Baton of Athlete ActivismDavid Steele
When Colin Kaepernick took a knee, he renewed a long tradition of athlete activists speaking out against racism, injustice, and oppression. Like Kaepernick, Jackie Robinson, Paul Robeson, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos—among many others, of all races, male and female, pro and amateur—all made the choice to take a side to command public awareness and attention rather than “shut up and play,” as O. J. Simpson, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods did in the years between Kaepernick and his predecessors. Using their celebrity to demand change, these activists inspired fans but faced great personal and professional risks in doing so. It Was Always a Choice shows how the new era of activism Kaepernick inaugurated builds on these decisive moments toward a bold and effective new frontier of possibilities.
David Steele identifies the resonances and antecedents throughout the twentieth century of the choices that would later be faced by athletes in the post-Kaepernick era, including the era of political organizing following the death of George Floyd. He shows which athletes chose silence instead of action—“dropping the baton,” as it were—in the movement to end racial inequities and violence against Black Americans. The examples of courageous athletes multiply as LeBron James, Megan Rapinoe, and the athlete activists of the NBA, WNBA, and NFL remain committed to fighting daily and vibrantly for social change.
"In this well written and well researched book, Steele directly takes on the issue of antiracist activism by athletes who make an active choice to thrust themselves forward and take a stand and refuse to 'shut up and play.'...VERDICT Highly recommended for all readers of all ages. Steele’s work shares new insights on activism in American athletics and particularly keys in on the consequences of athletes’ protests."
—Library Journal (Starred Review)
"A closely observed, well-argued examination of how athletes have used their fame to advance civil rights."
“In different iterations, Martin Luther King Jr. argued that when it comes to taking a stand that silence in itself is a statement. David Steele, in It Was Always a Choice ,reminds us now, in our latest recognition of sports as political turf, that athletes are as reflective of King’s observation as the sports they play are of society."
—Kevin Blackistone, University of Maryland professor, Washington Post columnist, and ESPN panelist
“This work is important and, when done by a journalist of esteem as impressive as David Steele, It Was Always a Choice is also a must-read.”
—Claire Smith, Codirector of the Claire Smith Center for Sports Media at Temple University and Baseball Writers’ Association of America Career Excellence Award–winning sports journalist of forty years
“I’ve been waiting for David Steele to lend his critical eye in book form to the question of athletic struggle. His articles have proven to be a roadmap toward understanding the mess of inspiration and contradiction that has defined this explosive period. To read his ideas and analysis fleshed out in It Was Always a Choice is to take a walk through the past and present and finally understand to the fullest how it all connects. It is an indispensable book for anyone who wants to understand not only the sports world, but the real world it inhabits.”—Dave Zirin, author of The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World
Silent GestureTommie Smith and David Steele