Sports and Politics: Making Statements



In this lesson, elementary school students will debate whether or not prominent athletes should promote political and social issues. The debate will be informed by the activism of Muhammad Ali, who resisted the drafted during the Vietnam War, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who protested American racism at the 1968 Olympics.


In 1967, Cassius Clay, who would later be known as Muhammad Ali, refused to be drafted into the military to fight in the Vietnam War. He claimed that he was a conscientious objector, a claim that was denied by the draft board. At the induction ceremony in Houston, Texas, he refused to be inducted into the United States Armed Forces. He was arrested, tried and convicted, and sentenced to five years in prison with a fine of $10,000. He appealed his conviction. It was originally upheld, but the United States Supreme Court heard his case in 1971 and unanimously overturned the conviction. Ali suffered greatly for his principles; he lost his license to box for three years and was stripped of his title of heavyweight champion of the world.

At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, John Carlos and Tommie Smith made history by displaying the Black Power salute on the award stand for the 200-meter dash. Smith had won the race while setting a world record, and Carlos had come in third. Both men decided to make a visual statement to the world about the racism that African Americans were experiencing in the United States. To this end, they raised their fists in what was internationally recognized as the symbol of the Black Power movement. They also wore symbolic clothing, such as socks without shoes to highlight the issue of black poverty. The International Olympic Committee reacted by demanding their suspension and banishment from the Olympic Village. Their act was largely viewed in a negative light at the time.

Both of these situations raised the question of whether athletes should involve themselves in politics. Responses from the media and public were varied.



Essential Question

Should prominent athletes use their fame to promote political and social issues?


  • Students will be able to read and understand primary and secondary documents pertaining to the political activism of Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Muhammad Ali.
  • Students will be able to discuss the sources and their own opinions about whether athletes should be visible in political and social debates
  • Students will be able to create a simple visual to demonstrate their views.


Students will answer the following three questions:

  • Who is your favorite athlete?
  • Why?
  • Would you vote for him/her for president?

Students discuss their answers with a partner.

After about four minutes, the teacher will ask several students to share what their partners said.


  1. Inform students that they are going to study two famous events in sports history: boxer Muhammad Ali's refusal to fight in the Vietnam War and the John Carlos and Thommie Smith's demonstration of the Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Give a brief background on both events.
  2. Divide the class in half. Have one half read the two articles on the Mexico City Olympics and the other half read the two articles on Ali’s refusal to be drafted. Students will complete the Reading Comprehension Worksheet.
  3. Explain the concept of "Speed Debating" by telling students that they will now move around the room to discuss the events that they studied and their own opinions about the events. Distribute the Speed Dating Questionnaire. Designate every other student with the letter "A." "A" students will not move during the activity. The "B" students, will rotate around the room. Desks should be moved so that they face each other in orderly rows. Each pair will have two minutes to discuss the questions, and the entire class will discuss the questions in order, so that within each new pairing a new question is being discussed.
  4. After all of the questions have been answered and/or debated, students will be given a sticky note and asked to put their initials on it. They will then post it on a continuum that the teacher has drawn on the chalkboard titled, "Athletes should use their popularity and fame to make political and social statements." Students who strongly disagree will put their sticky notes all the way to the left, while students who strongly agree will apply their sticky notes to the right side of the continuum. Students may also communicate indecision or mild feelings by using the middle of the continuum.


After all students have posted, the teacher should ask students where they put their sticky notes on the continuum and why in a whole class discussion.


Students will create a one-page visual that shows with writing and images whether they agree with Ali and/or Carlos and Smith’s actions.