The Kaepernick ad and the black armband protest

And, so, that Colin Kaepernick Nike ad. No matter what you think of him, or his protests, or anything else politically, you have to like the sentiment: be the best ever in whatever you do. Don’t be a cricket blogger, be Jarrod Kimber. Don’t be a slightly above average county cricketer, instead dredge up every last bit of your talent and become captain for England.

Of course, it’s idealism. A corporate vision of utopia. Not every kid who has a killer jump shot is going to get lucky enough to play in front of the right college recruiter on the right day. Back to cricket: Yesterday,  I was thinking about Lasith Malinga and his return to the Sri Lankan side for the Asia Cup. His unique arm action — like a kid skipping rocks on a lake — made me swoon when I first started following the game. That big fluff of hair, those wicked in-swinging yorkers breaking the legs of batsmen. And then I thought about all of those kids in the ghettos of Colombo who grew up mocking that action, and that thought warmed my heart a little. Malinga’s been playing international cricket since July of 2004. 14 years. And so an entire generation of Sri Lankans have grown up watching him bowl death overs. But then I remembered an article that Jarrod Kimber wrote a few years back:

Like many in Sri Lanka, the cricketers from Chilaw are largely invisible inside the system. There are Test-quality cricketers playing on the streets of the Hikkaduwa right now that will never play with a hard cricket ball in their life.

That’s the thing. That’s what we should all be rebelling against. The systems that keep those outside. And that’s what Kaepernick is doing, or at least that’s what he — and many others — believe he is doing: protesting against the systems that keep people down, or even, in some cases, end up killing them. He is giving a voice to the voiceless. It doesn’t matter if you agree or disagree with how he is going about it, his intentions and his actions are exposing the very systems that take away the even ground necessary for us all to be the best ever in whatever we choose to do. In that sense, the ad has multiple narratives.

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Reading about Kaepernick of course also got me thinking about on field protests, and since this is a cricket blog, I started reading about the “Black armband protest” at the 2003 World Cup. For those interested, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga wore black armbands in a World Cup match for Zimbabwe, played in Zimbabwe (the country hosted six group stage matches), against Namibia. They were protesting the death of democracy in Zimbabwe (Mugbabe was nearing the height of his powers) which included the seizure of white owned farms as well as human rights abuses that the EU had punished the country’s elites for just recently.

The planning for the protest was quite in-depth, and included a statement partially written by an attorney delivered just before the start of the match. Farcically, both players neglected to actually bring black armbands to the ground, so were forced to use black electrical tape instead. Some of the crowd even joined in on the protests throughout the game as they learned of the statement, putting their own black armbands on. Flower batted for 39 and Olonga took no wickets for 8, as Zimbabwe won the rain shortened match.

As we all know, political statements on the field during a cricket match are a violation of the spirit of cricket, and so the hand wringing commenced almost immediately. The reactions were, at first glance, similar to the reactions to Kaepernick’s protests: a slap on the hand from an ineffectual governing body, and loud consternations from the Zimbabwean president and his party, while the support from fellow cricketers and the international press was largely positive. The similarities stop there though. Olonga was called an “uncle Tom” and was charged with treason (one fan wearing an armband at the match was also arrested and charged, but 200 fans wore them at Zimbabwe’s next match), he was sacked by his club, he received death threats, and was dropped by the national team for the remainder of the group stage, playing only one final match for his country (a super six match) before retiring — and was even kicked off the team bus.

Flower, for his part, while the reaction from certain parts was equally acrimonious, he was also considered undroppable and played for Zimbabwe the remainder of the tournament. And while he didn’t wear a black armband, he did wear black wristbands or white armbands. He had already announced his retirement from the national team, and so received no further punishment.

Both men eventually settled in England, and were awarded honorary lifetime memberships of the Marylebone Cricket Club.

Now, it’s a complicated issue. And one that has come up in the news recently, only in South Africa instead of Zimbabwe. And I won’t begin to try to understand the minutiae of Zimbabwean politics in the early 2002s. But what Flower and Olonga were attempting to do was the same thing that Kaepernick is trying to do: give voice to the voiceless and expose the systems that keep people down. Right or wrong, their actions were at least an attempt at virtuousness. An attempt to use the stage they were given to shed light on an issue that exists mostly in shadow. Just like Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Just like Věra Čáslavská. They had the biggest stages in the world, and they used them.

People get crispy about mixing politics and sport, or politics and music, or politics and just about anything. But usually they are only against it if the athlete or musician is expressing an opinion that they don’t agree with. We are all guilty of this. Both sides. But we shouldn’t be. As long as the opinion or protest is valid, it should be not just allowed, but celebrated. The world is filled with far too many people not just outside the system, but who are being crushed by the system. And if an athlete wants to give voice to those people, then more power to them. Be they democrat, republican, whatever. For we should all have the chance to play hard ball cricket.

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