At Philosophy Football’s Why Black Matters seminar, Dave Zirin spoke to Kadeem Simmonds about the first athlete to protest at the recent killings
in the US, a young female basketball player called Ariyana Smith
Ariyana Smith. To many it’s just a name and up until a few days ago I had no idea who she was. But once I had heard her story, it is a name I will never forget.
On November 29 Smith made the “Hands up, don’t shoot” gesture at a university basketball game. She lay on the court for four-and-a-half minutes — Michael Brown lay dead on the streets of Ferguson for four-and-a-half hours — before getting up with her fist raised and leaving the gym.
Unfortunately for her, her name isn’t as famous as basketball superstar LeBron James or the players of American Football franchise the St Louis Rams.
So it took a while before anyone knew what she had done.
The next night, the Rams came out at the Edward Jones Dome with their arms raised and it was all over the news. People were sharing the story on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, you name it.
A few nights later Chicago Bulls player Derrick Rose wore the now infamous “I can’t breathe” T-shirt.
James donned one while warming up for the Cleveland Caviliers a few days later and all of a sudden a sports movement was born.
But up until then, no-one had cared about the young, black, female basketball plaer who was the first athlete activist in the Why Black Matters movement. The pioneer.
But US sport journalist Dave Zirin cared and spoke to her. Zirin expertly mixes sports and politics like no-one in the Britain does.
I managed to grab a few minutes with him after he talked about the movement in the US and I posed the question: “Will people remember who Smith is in 50 years time or will we only talk about the male athletes?”
“I hope so,” he replies. “She plays for a very small school. Nobody knew who she was before. She barely has any online record at all.
“Even finding her to interview her took several weeks. I had to email friends of hers, I was sleuthing online.
“It was crazy. It got very little coverage.
“It started to get more in recent weeks. Because people are saying: ‘Wait a minute, that was the first one.’ So people are doing these retrospectives.
“They go back to Ariyana Smith but — this is the thing — people want stars, people want men and that’s what makes her story so interesting and transgressive.”
So we talk about the men. The superstars that grace the cover of the latest sports games and fill up our timelines on social media (if you happen to follow people that enjoy US sports).
And it’s interesting that when asked if people will remember the men — let alone Smith — Zirin laughs and says: “I was having this debate today with a friend of mine.
“That’s the $64,000 question. The only way to answer it is to say if there is a movement to give it weight — it’s why we all remember Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
“There were other athletes, not at that Olympics but in the ’72 Olympics, who did things. Nobody remembers them.
“Why do we remember Smith and Carlos? Because it crystalised a moment that was biger than them.
“So if this movement continues to grow and get legs and achieves some real victories then absolutley we will remeber what these athletes did forever.
“But if the movement itself disapates then it will waft away like fog.”
Will history really forget the first athlete to raise their hands in protest?
Will we forget her because she is black or will we forget her because she is female?
When you look at athletes who made a political stand, you don’t mention any women’s names.
Even for Smith, her idols were Smith, Carlos and Muhammad Ali. Are there any women that young girls can look up as activists in sport?
Tennis legend Bille Jean King fought for equality in sport and beat men’s grand slam champion Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes.”
She was the driving force behind the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973 but after her you struggle to find someone else.
Smith could be, and should be, remembered decades down the line if people talk about the Why Black Matters movement.
In all likelihood, she will be just another woman lost in a sports world dominated by men.