The Cleveland Summit blueprinted athlete activism

Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar set the precedent for athletes making a change off the fields and courts.


Oftentimes, people will look at professional athletes and see one thing: a source of entertainment. They are enamored and unable to look past the touchdowns, dunks, goals, home runs and more. However, these athletes are also educated individuals who have contributed their influential opinions to society. 

They are, in fact, more than athletes.

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Back in 2018, journalist Laura Ingraham infamously aimed to reproach NBA superstar LeBron James for talking about politics.

“It’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball,” said the Fox News host. “Keep the political comments to yourselves … Shut up and dribble.”

Her comments received swift backlash and prompted a powerful response from James. 

“The best thing she did was help me create more awareness,” James said. “I get to sit up here and talk about social injustice … We will definitely not shut up and dribble.”

While there will be other installments of this column mentioning the activism of James and other contemporary athletes, this article is not about him. In fact, the activism of this generation’s athletes would not even be possible without the sacrifices of those who came before them. More specifically, the advocacy of the trailblazers of the civil rights movement in the 1960s wave of athlete activism.

One of the most influential events in the history of activism and sports, the Cleveland summit — sometimes referred to as the “Ali Summit” — was held on June 4, 1967. It was a pivotal conference organized by 11 prominent Black athletes, such as NBA Hall of Fame centers Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, NFL Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown and all-time boxing great Muhammad Ali. The fact that these well-known sportsmen were involved gave the meeting a lot more weight. 

The main goal of the summit was to support Muhammad Ali’s choice to conscientiously protest the draft during the Vietnam War. Ali had objected to the war, giving religious grounds for his refusal to be drafted into the United States Army. As a result, he faced legal repercussions including the loss of his heavyweight title, a five-year jail term, a $10,000 fine — about $90,000 today — and a boxing suspension.

After the multi-hour meeting between the athletes ended, Ali’s anti-war stance remained the same, however, now with the support of his fellow Black athletes. 

“There’s nothing new to say,” Ali said to reporters at the ensuing news conference.

Two weeks later, Ali was found guilty of evading the war by an all-white jury. He would be banned from boxing for an additional three years until 1971 when the Supreme Court would ultimately overturn his conviction.

Despite the summit not achieving its initial goal, it had a wide range of positive effects. It contributed to the larger civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 1970s by making a statement against racial injustice and the Vietnam War. Additionally, it demonstrated the relationship between activism, politics and athletics while demonstrating the ability of players to shape public opinion. Most importantly, the summit set the blueprint for athletes in the future to come together to fight social injustice.

All four of these superstar athletes — Ali, Brown, Russell and Abdul-Jabbar — went on to continue the fight against racism and other discrimination well after their careers. Again, let me emphasize, modern sports activism would not be not possible without them.

As an avid sports fan, I can admit the entertainment athletes give us on a day-to-day basis. However, it is vital we as a society acknowledge and appreciate the actions and opinions of athletes outside the realm of sports, as seen through the historic Cleveland summit.

Joshua Sacher is a sophomore writing about athletes who led the change for social justice in his column, “More Than An Athlete,” which runs every other Thursday. He is also a sports editor at the Daily Trojan.

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