THE BLOG
08/25/2014 12:55 pm ET Updated Oct 25, 2014

Ferguson and Football Player Protest: What Would Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown Say?

With respect to the recent preseason protest by a handful of NFL players, William Rhoden's August 24, 2014 New York Times article emotionally and intellectually supported the protests of the NFL players who emerged on the field before a recent preseason game adopting the "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" posture that symbolizes the rage felt since the Ferguson police officer shot to death Michael Brown.

Kudos are due for Rhoden writing the piece, for the professional football players who joined the demonstration at the start of the game and for others, like Eagles coach Chip Kelly, quoted in Rhoden's article, expressing support of political advocacy by professional athletes even while wearing their uniforms.

Players across all sports -- from LeBron James through the NFL stars about to begin their season -- appear to embrace the position the Associated Press quoted from Washington defensive safety, Ryan Clark, who led the demonstration. Clark said:

"When you get an opportunity to make a statement and be more than a football player, it's good."

Such awareness is something that Muhammad Ali and another football legend, Jim Brown, seemed to have understood instinctively when their sports celebrity occurred in the midst of the civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s. In professional football and basketball, it is heartening to African Americans of my post war generation to see re-emerging awareness of a historical obligation, a point that may seem lost on some who over the past decades have valued reaping the astronomical monetary value from professional sports and endorsement contracts more than paying down any debt to others who paved the way for their success.

However, a point of irony not commented upon by Rhoden or developed in other media reports of the demonstration, is that the protest was originated by the professional football team located in Washington while using the team name and logo of Redskins.

Readers of Mr. Rhoden's article or other accounts of the demonstration who happen to reside on the reservations that dot around the nation may perceive a possible double standard at worse, and a degree of obliviousness at best, when it comes to reportage on the "Hands Up" demonstrations.

The professional football player's protest was aimed at an issue that fails to transcend the more endemic (and traditional) "white-black" racial divide. The NFL players share the black skin color of Michael Brown, the Ferguson victim.

But they protested while wearing football uniforms and regalia which was "red" in color and mythologizes another racial divide in this country: that between native Americans and those who "settled" and occupied their lands while supported by decades of national policy and state-sanctioned shootings of people with a dissimilar skin color. Indeed, in some perverse senses, a common instrumentality is the deployment of weapons of war developed for the U.S. Calvary or, now, local police departments.

The numbers of Native American football players may never reach the current critical mass of African American NFL players (nearly 50 percent) which could support the protest of the Ferguson shooting.

But I hope that, despite the disparity in ethnic participation in the sport of football, if the time comes when use of the "Redskins" epithet and mythology is more universally frowned upon, Ryan Clark will be as courageous then -- as he has been recently in "being more than a football player" -- by refusing to embrace those epithets marketed by the Washington franchise for which he plays and by which he is paid.