Three 49ers players, including Colin Kaepernick (7), kneel during the national anthem before a 2016 game.

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Hartnett: Kaepernick Saga Only Latest Example Of Sports, Politics Intersecting

Ali, Nash, Suns Among Others Who Protested

Sean Hartnett
September 05, 2018 - 11:38 am
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Whether you like it or not, sports and politics have always intersected. For the coming-of-age baby boomer generation, Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted for the Vietnam War sparked debate across the country.

On April 28, 1967, Ali appeared for his scheduled induction into the U.S. Military and repeatedly chose not to step forward when his name was called. He was led to a separate room where he was explained that a failure to step forward could result in a $10,000 fine, prison or both.

After learning of the consequences for refusing to take the oath, Ali returned to the induction room and again defied the draft. He was arrested, and his world heavyweight title was stripped by the New York State Athletic Commission on the same day.

Some Americans branded Ali as a coward and a traitor to his nation, while others understood Ali’s religious stance as a conscientious objector.

MORE: Kaepernick's Nike Deal Prompts Flurry Of Debate Online

Ultimately, Ali did not serve jail time – though he lost 43 months of his career. He spent his hiatus from the ring speaking out against the war on college campuses. His boxing license was reinstated in 1970 by the New York State Supreme Court. One year later, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction by unanimous decision.

Time would eventually soften the public’s opinion of Ali. An estimated 3.5 billion worldwide viewers observed Ali lighting the Olympic flame at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics.

Ali was embraced by Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton presented Ali with the Presidential Citizens Medal, and he received the highest civilian honor in the country when George W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Time has a way of presenting clarity to polarizing topics. In his later years, Ali was viewed by the majority of the American public as a humanitarian figure and goodwill ambassador. Thirty-five years after his antiwar stance, Ali traveled to Afghanistan as a United Nations messenger of peace in 2002. His legacy outside the ring equaled his legendary accomplishments within the sport of boxing.

No matter the era, there will come a time when politics seeps into the sporting landscape. Similar to the generation before me who idolized Ali, I soon found my favorite athlete delivering an antiwar statement at the 2003 NBA All-Star Game. Steve Nash of the Dallas Mavericks wore a T-shirt bearing the slogan: “No War. Shoot For Peace” during media day in Atlanta.

At the time, I was shy of my 19th birthday and my political views hadn’t been solidified. Suddenly, I was hearing a very different message than what I had observed from family members and close friends. Nash stood up for his beliefs and stuck to them despite drawing criticism from the media and fellow players, most notably former Naval officer David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs.

Nash and the Phoenix Suns wore “Los Suns” jerseys during Game 2 of the 2010 Western Conference semifinals in response to a newly passed Arizona law that directed local police to question people about their immigration status and demand to see their documents if there is reason to suspect they are illegal.

Team owner Robert Sarver suggested the “Los Suns” jersey idea and left the final decision to his players. The suggestion was met with unanimous support from the players. At a Rose Garden Cinco de Mayo event, President Barack Obama described the Arizona immigration law as “misguided” and referred to the Suns as “Los Suns.”

The Suns swapped their uniforms ahead of a nationally televised playoff game to promote diversity and show their support for the Hispanic community. It was a conscious decision to stand for equal rights.

Now retired, Nash voiced his support for Colin Kaepernick on Tuesday night. “Team Kaepernick,” he tweeted.

A national debate has been reignited following Nike’s decision to include the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback as part of its “Just Do It” 30th anniversary ad campaign.

In 2018 and in a version of America that has allowed Donald Trump to rise to the highest office of the land, Kaepernick is a powerful countermeasure to the bombastic, self-absorbed 45th president.

How often does Kaepernick say a word? How often does he wade into debates? When Kaepernick says or does something he does it in a careful, measured way.

It’s easy to forget that Kaepernick began kneeling after consulting with Army veteran and former Seattle Seahawks long snapper Nate Boyer.

Boyer was initially offended at the sight of Kaepernick sitting on the bench during the national anthem. He suggested to Kaepernick that kneeling was a more respectful way of demonstrating, citing that “people kneel to pray; we’ll kneel in front of a fallen brother’s grave.”

Let’s not get Kaepernick’s message twisted. His decision to kneel during the national anthem was intended to raise awareness of racism, social injustice and police brutality.

Perhaps, like Ali, Kaepernick will someday be viewed differently by his present-day detractors.

Kaepernick’s activism resulted in banishment from the NFL at age 29. His ability and track record show that he belongs in the NFL. He has thrown 72 career touchdowns, while being intercepted 30 times. His career passer rating is 88.9. He owns a 4-2 playoff record.

In 1967 and in 2018, athletes have refused to “stick to sports.” More than ever, athletes aren’t afraid to raise their voice and are prepared to meet consequences head-on.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey​.