Sports in the United States have always been political.

In a panel discussion Feb. 5 at UCLA, experts made that case by pointing to municipal governments subsidizing new stadiums, the racial and gender barriers to participation in sports and even the charitable causes leagues choose to support.

The one-hour discussion about athletes and activism was part of a series of events recognizing the 100th birthday of Jackie Robinson, the UCLA alumnus who broke the Major League Baseball color barrier in 1947.

The panelists were Pat Turner, vice provost of UCLA undergraduate education and professor of African American studies; Chris Kluwe, a former punter for UCLA and the Minnesota Vikings and now a writer and LGBT equality activist; Damion Thomas, museum curator of sports for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture who earned a doctorate in history from UCLA; and Kaiya McCullough, a current UCLA women’s soccer player. The moderator was ESPN anchor Cari Champion, a UCLA alumna.

McCullough made news in 2017 when she began kneeling during the national anthem before UCLA soccer games — joining a movement that began with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a call for social and racial justice. She said reading on social media about the repeated shootings of African-American men inspired her to take action.

“You see all these stories and it’s hard to not be moved,” McCullough said. “And it’s hard to not feel sadness for people who are going through things that you couldn’t possibly imagine. I grew up really privileged, too. I have a white mother and black father… and I grew up in a wealthy area. I’ve experienced privilege in that way, too. For me it was more, ‘I have a platform, I need to use it.’”

McCullough continued to kneel before games in 2018, and when she said that she planned to continue doing so in 2019, loud applause and cheers erupted from the crowd in Schoenberg Hall.


Kluwe spoke passionately about the responsibility he feels to speak out.

“I am very privileged just because of the fact I am white,” Kluwe said. “It’s on [white people] to recognize that. We can’t push all the work of changing things on the communities that are being adversely affected.”

(To which Champion chimed in: “Chris, say it again. I want to say ‘Amen!’”)

Thomas brought some historical context to the discussion. He noted that when James Naismith invented basketball in 1919, it was to help the YMCA — founded as the Young Men’s Christian Association — instill moral and character education at a time when church attendance was declining.

“One of the things about the United States, sports are such an integral part of our educational system,” Thomas said. “We attribute all of this character development and socializing to sports. Basketball [became] a vehicle to teach young men and boys, at that point, Christian values.”

Champion pointedly asked the panel what might have happened if Kaepernick had said he was kneeling to support breast cancer research, rather than to bring attention to racial injustice. Kluwe said he didn’t think anyone would have had a problem with that; that it was because Kaepernick was pointing out the “ugly history of American racism” that many football fans turned against him.

“Again, politics and sports are intertwined all the way,” Kluwe said.

Turner said it was interesting to her that athletes’ kneeling during the anthem has been interpreted as disrespectful.

“I can think of other things you can do that are genuinely disrespectful,” she said. “But quietly getting on a knee, not vocalizing anything — that’s interpreted as disrespectful?”

Toward the end of the discussion, Thomas reminded the audience of Jackie Robinson’s legacy — and the toll that his activism took on him.

“Jackie Robinson always said, ‘Well, we still haven’t done enough,’” Thomas said. “And by the time he retired, he was seen as being ungrateful. He was seen as being somebody who was combative. He was seen as somebody who would not allow baseball and society to celebrate all of this progress. Even though Jackie Robinson did all these amazing things, there was a cost that came with all of it.”

Click to listen to the discussion.