Stay in Your Lane: Why Does Everything Have to Have a Protest?
Disclaimer: There won’t be any sharing of any political beliefs here, so no need to avoid this altogether, or jump to conclusions about what I may believe. It’s a safe place with a fascinating story, I promise.
Shortly after NASCAR banned the Confederate flag from its race events earlier this month, I decided to look at Robin Miller’s recent mailbag pieces on RACER.com to see what kind of questions the motorsports community was asking. In his Q&A with RACER readers, I found this excerpt. You can click the link above to read the full interaction, but I shortened to focus on the point of this piece:
Q: Why does everything have to have a protest involved with it? Why can’t we watch one sport as a relief from day-to-day politics?
RM: That’s a good question for which I have no answer. But sports was always an escape for people from the daily grind, and now it’s become a battleground for civil rights, politics and the almighty dollar.
This interaction made me pause for many reasons. Sports and film are great distraction and disconnection mechanisms for me and I’m sure many others. But it’s nearly impossible to ignore how protests have shaped the industries we love during the last century, especially sports.
NASCAR’s defiant roots
Instantly, I thought of NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing). By now it should be common knowledge that NASCAR’s history is rooted in bootleggers and rumrunners defiantly protesting the prohibition laws at the time. For those who don’t know, here’s an incredibly brief history lesson:
From 1920 to 1933, the production, sale, and transportation of alcohol was illegal in the United States, and we call this period Prohibition. As we all know, there are a bevy of people in the United States of America who love to rebel. So those who loved that rebellion channeled it into a new, thriving business.
One such form of this rebellion was rum running. Men souped up their cars, loaded them up with alcohol, and worked tirelessly to outrun federal and local law enforcement in order to sell and spread the liquid cheer. These guys realized driving a car fast and dangerously was incredibly fun. Naturally, dirt tracks started appearing and race series started forming shortly afterward. Prohibition era-mechanic Bill France also raced during this time and eventually found a way to organize the sport.
Today, the France family owns NASCAR, its affiliated tracks, and its multiple race series. To summarize, stock car racing in North America is the direct result of a political protest. So, cheers to those guys. Thanks for bringing the drinks and the racing.
Then I had to wonder when some of the first political protests or activism in sports took place, and I naively thought they likely took place close to our modern age.
Grab that drink again, because we’re going to journey back to one of the first recorded sports protests in history. Interestingly enough, it’s in racing.
When Constantinople, now Istanbul, was the battlefield
We’re going to hop back roughly 1,490 years and visit the year 532 CE (or AD, if you prefer). This story takes place in Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, which we know today as Istanbul, Turkey.
Emperor Justinian came to power seven years before and was doing a so-so job. Scholars believe he had a good heart in wanting to expand and improve the Roman Empire and was perhaps a little too ambitious in doing so. He introduced some new laws, raised some taxes, and hired some guys he thought would also be go-getters. But it turns out they weren’t a big hit among the common folk, and there were riots from time to time. I’m going to pause on this part of the story because it’s time to talk about racing.
In Constantinople, chariot racing was incredibly popular and happened at the Hippodrome: a long, U-shaped horse racing track, capable of seating 100,000 fans. Unfortunately, it’s no longer around today, but if you envision the horse race track in the film Ben-Hur, you sort of get the general but not exact idea (historians, please don’t attack me). Horse racing was a popular sport back then, and in this era, the Blues and the Greens were the fan-favorite teams, despite their complete lack of creativity in coming up with cool team names. These teams had as many as three chariots in each race, and sometimes had up to 24 races in one day. The teams were of considerable size and they along with their fans, had considerable political influence among their fans.
This is where the riots come back and into play. Members of the Blues and Greens were vocal about politics on and off the track, and got involved in the riots from time to time. As a result, many of them were rounded up, arrested, and set to be executed in January of 532 CE. While the executions were taking place two men, one from the Green team and one from the Blue team, made their escape and claimed sanctuary in a church. This was immediately put under guard, leaving them nowhere to go, and making the rest of their teammates and their fans quite angry.
When the races resumed at the Hippodrome, the crowd and the Greens and Blues chanted all day (throughout 22 races) for Emperor Justinian to let the men go free. When he didn’t answer and instead hid in his palace, the riots began again and got turned up. The palace and the city were both under siege for five days.
Justinian resisted the urge to retreat, and sent his generals out to end the riots. The generals were able to pay off some of the Blues to leave quietly, but many stayed and held their ground alongside the Greens. In the end, the generals rounded up the rioters in the Hippodrome and slaughtered them. Historians estimate the death toll to be between 30,000 and 35,000.
Just a few minutes of research pulls up hundreds of times throughout sports history where the platform it provides intersects with protesting. Sometimes, it’s the product of a protest, like in NASCAR’s case. Other times, the platform is used as the stage, like in Constantinople. Within the last century, we’ve seen athletes of color and women stand for their right to play in professional sports.
In the decade before I was born, someone actually had to advocate for women to be allowed in motorsport garages and in pit lane. Football and soccer players have kneeled in recent years to protest police brutality. This year, the U.S. Women’s soccer team protested on the field for equal pay as their male counterparts.
“Stay in Your Lane”
No matter the history of sports and protests, time and time again, we see professional athletes and entertainers being told to “stay in their lane.” More blatantly, in the case of Laura Ingraham to LeBron James, it was: “Shut up and dribble.”
This one always strikes me as incredibly nonsensical and inspires a few responses:
- First of all, are athletes solely here for our entertainment? Are they puppets and we hold the strings? Do we only let them out of their boxes when it’s time to dance?
- I LOVE replying to this one. I look up the person’s career, see they don’t work in the field they’re criticizing, and ask them how they’re able to exit their own lane. Oddly, I never get an answer on that one. If Laura Ingraham were to follow her own advice, she would still be a speechwriter, like she was in the 1980s. If she stayed in her present-day lane, why is she talking to a professional athlete? The idea that someone can’t have and make opinions outside of their career is just impossible.
- I’m a big advocate for people to use their talents and platforms for something other than themselves. I personally loathe seeing people of influence, power, and celebrity gather massive amounts of power and influence, only to use their resources to benefit themselves and accumulate more wealth and power. When I see an athlete, artist, actor, celebrity, etc., try to make a positive change in the world and help others, I’ll support that, even if I don’t agree with their specific cause. They have a massive platform through which they can make an impact for the better and use their influence and access to challenge the ideas and people that us back as a society.
The main takeaway I’ve come to realize is this: sports (and entertainment as a whole) have always been a platform for representation, civil rights, equal pay, the right to drink alcohol, and more. In my personal experience, generally the people who complain about everything being a protest are the same people who have never had to deal with the very thing that protest is about.
Some causes are easier to conform to than others, so it’s easy to overlook and not be bothered by them. Yet other causes force us to address uncomfortable topics. Rather than listen and try to empathize, we act like the sport is changing drastically and we’ve been majorly inconvenienced. In reality, it isn’t, and we haven’t. The cars keep turning laps as the drivers still battle for position. The stick-and-ball players still score their goals, hit their home runs, or drain their fadeaway jump shots.
Sports create and thrive on a sense of community and inclusivity. They’re more than just an escape from the daily grind. It’s a place where people can feel valued, represented, and empowered. So embrace it, because it’s a part of our history that has led to positive change, and looks to continue to do so.