After my good fortune in working with the scholars in the Emerging Scholars Workshop at the Centre for Law and Society at the University of Cape Town, I find myself thinking about South Africa and the United State together more than I once did. Today, race and sports intertwine.
I don’t follow professional, college or any other sports, except when a young person I know and love is playing. Neither do I follow the sports important in the United States, such as American football, nor the sports important to the rest of the world, whether rugby, cricket or what most of the world calls football. Basketball is beautiful, but I seldom get around to following that either. Serena Williams is a kick-ass tennis player who makes us all proud. She won an international championship while pregnant. Still, I don’t watch her play.
However, on September 24, 2017, I watched the unfolding decisions among US football teams concerning what to do about the national anthem, played and sung at the beginning of every professional sports game. The quarterback Colin Kaepernick went to bended knee last year during the anthem to protest violence against African American men, particularly police violence. He’s not employed as a football player this season. President Trump, who has a lot to do, what with North Korea, health care legislation, and mentions of changes in tax law, chose to turn up the heat by calling for team owners to fire players for exercising their first amendment speech rights, and for people to stop watching football until all the teams stand on the field during the national anthem. In response, players, coaches and owners issued statements criticizing what President Trump wrote, staying in locker rooms during the national anthem, kneeling, or linking arms and standing together during the national anthem. It used to be said that the last words to the national anthem were ‘play ball,’ so much was it a prelude to a game rather than the thing itself (though I’m probably mixing up sports here). Today, the anthem is riveting.
Law and justice claims are intertwined with sports. Even with my feeble ability to pay attention, I can’t help but think about how important the international boycott of South Africa and exclusion from the Olympics during apartheid was in heightening international awareness of injustice, and penalizing people where they’d notice. The state may have been following its unjust laws meticulously, but they were unjust. So many people sacrificed lives and time to protest the laws, in so many ways. Exclusions from international competitions, even when they weren’t followed or when people fought about them, were one way.
In the United States, today’s athletes are aligning with the law’s stated aims of justice for all, not against it. The unjust practices of the law, however, are at the heart of the protests. Mr. Kaepernick started with a silent protest of police killings of African American men. In studies of ending impunity for state violence, protests by athletes are not usually on the list of alternative tactics. In law schools, the expertise of the lawyers and what they can bring to bear, usually is. The current protests in the United States, and the international importance of the historical exclusion of South Africa in international sports, are great reminders to think creatively about tactics. Thanks to the US president’s call for punishment of athletes, the players of the Seattle Seahawks issued a joint statement condemning the injustice people of color face in the United States, closing by saying: “We remain committed in continuing to work towards equality and justice for all.” The trending hashtag on twitter today is #TakeAKnee, with pictures from around the country of athletes and other, sometimes more creaky people on a knee (or both) and supporting either the first amendment, or the claim for racial justice, or both.
Sports have always been intertwined with politics and justice claims, and the more anyone looks the more examples show up. They include the 1936 Olympics in Germany and the horrifying treatment in the US of the runner Jesse Owens who triumphed in those Olympics, of Jackie Robinson in baseball and sports in turning the world’s eye to the injustices of apartheid. The language of legal expertise and the lawsuits and legal instruments so important to sociolegal studies complement tactics more connected not only to the local vernacular that Sally Merry argues is so important to human rights claims, but to the international, popular spectacle of sports.
*Susan Sterett is the incoming director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She is the current co-editor of Law and Society Review, with Jeannine Bell (Indiana University) and Margot Young (University of British Columbia). She served as a program officer for the United States National Science Foundation in Law and Social Sciences for three years. She has written on how courts structure of social welfare benefits, most recently concerning accessing benefits after disaster.