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."
“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
" Steele takes on the task of positioning recent sports activism in the United States within the longer history of athletes in that country taking a stand against racial injustice.... Steele writes in an engaging and impassioned style that will certainly attract a broad readership.... It Was Always a Choice is a book with a clear argument – that athletes cannot and should not stand above the fray when it comes to civil rights activism – and anyone who is looking to understand recent events in US sporting history would benefit from reading it."
/>—Sport in History
"Steele, a sports journalist, connects recent efforts by Black athletes to effect social change, initiated by Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the national anthem, to the history of Black athletes using their platform to draw attention to racial injustice.... In particular, Steele draws a direct line from the famous protest by John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. He contrasts this with the period from the 1980s to the early 2000s, when Black athletes mostly tried to stay out of larger social justice debates.... (A)s Steele demonstrates, given recent high-profile incidents of police violence against Black people and the demagoguery of now former President Donald Trump and his supporters, the need for protest and social justice campaigns remains as great as ever.... Summing Up: Recommended."
"David Steele’s authoritative and engaging account uses historical reflection and up-to-date analysis to locate the key issues firmly in the present; but also, encouragingly, it turns its gaze to the future, and considers what, and who, might come next. Within the broader realm of sporting activism, Steele’s book focuses specifically on race and racism, and explores the actions undertaken largely but not exclusively by African American athletes in the United States. Through a comprehensive and thoughtful delineation of their actions, bodily gestures and spoken words, Steele outlines how Black sportspeople are inseparable from the communities which they emerge from and represent.... It Was Always a Choice is an important and insightful text."—Ethnic and Racial Studies
Silent GestureTommie Smith and David Steele