Hot Take: Interview w/ Toni Smith-Thompson on Athletic Activism and her 2003 Protest

Amira Rose Davis interviews Toni Smith Thompson, a former college basketball player who protested during the National Anthem in 2003.

Toni joins Burn It All Down to reflect on her protest and offer her thoughts on the new NFL Anthem Policy, the history of black women’s athletic activism,, and to give advice to student athletes who are “growing into their activism”.


Amira: Hey everyone. I am so honored today to be joined by Toni Smith-Thompson. Toni made headlines back in 2002 when as a player at Manhattanville College as basketball player, she protested during the national anthem. Now certainly, this protest has shades of the kind of renaissance of athletic activism that we’re seeing today. When the NFL passed their new stupid policy this past week, I thought of no one better to speak with about their opinion on this and the history of athletic activism, particularly by women, and black women at that. Toni, welcome to Burn It All Down.

Toni: Thanks so much. It is such an honor on podcast with you. I’m very excited.

Amira: This ruling this past week, the NFL made this ruling in attempt to curtail peaceful protest of the players such as Kaepernick, Eric Reid, and other players who may want to, and have before protested during the national anthem. When you heard of this policy, what did you think?

Toni: What did I think when I heard of this policy? I actually posted some comments in response on social media, because for me, this policy rang of the same brand of compromise that I actually rejected when I was protesting during the 2002, 2003 season. There was quite a bit of disagreement on my team, and when we tried to talk it out, or reach some kind of agreement, one of the recommendations or one of the offers for compromise from teammates was that I stay in the locker room.

I rejected that because my protest was not to not be part of my team. My protest was about the policies in practices of our country, and I didn’t think, as the team had to participate in this forced patriotism, that in order for me to show that I had issues that I wanted to raise in regards to our country’s policies and practices that I also needed to sit out being part of my team. Essentially, that’s what this policy does. It forces players to choose between their team and their values, and it is misguided at the least, racist at the worst, and another tired attempt to silence black players.

Amira: Yeah, totally. I really appreciate this kind of false compromise that you highlighted. This way that … It’s this idea that, “Oh, yeah. This is the middle ground,” when no players were even consulted, and it’s not a compromise, more so erasure. Can you take us through the decision you made to protest, and what lead you to that, and how you chose to enact your protest?

Toni: Sure. The decision to protest, I’d say was a long time in the making just because as a black woman in the United States, and as a light skinned black woman at that, I have grown up with a front seat to being black in America, and I’ve also in many ways had a front seat to what it means to be white in America and white passing. A lot of that shaped me going into college, but then I’m a sociology major, and as it should, my courses opened my eyes to the systemic workings that shape what you know to be every day experiences, but you don’t know why things are unfair. You don’t know why you feel like the country is misguided, and why we’re not equal. Then, you learn actually about these intricate inner workings that produce the inequalities.

I was very much in that place leading up to my senior year, and I was going through other transformations as well. I had changed my diet. I had become a vegan that year. I was no longer drinking alcohol or really participating in a lot of the social activities that are common in college. I was really going through this cleanse, and trying to make sense of what it means to be black in America. What it means to live in integrity, and live in a way that would further justice the way I saw?

That all led to a conversation. It was one conversation with my then boyfriend that highlighted this practice. This was a practice that I didn’t have to participate in, in grade school. I went to schools where we didn’t recite the pledge. College was really the first time that I was made to participate in this kind of display. Through this conversation, highlighted for me, what it meant that I was participating in this practice. Before then, it really just was a go with the flow, get through it during the national anthem. It wasn’t on my team, and other teams from what I witnessed. The national anthem was not a time for deep patriotism. It was a time to whisper under your breath, crack jokes, poke the person in front of you, go through your last minute game plans. Right? All this stuff is going through your head during the national anthem, and among the team. This is not a sacred moment for most people, as I’ve experienced.

Once I distinguished that, not only does this practice not hold any meaning for me to participate in, it actually hold significant meaning that I’m participating in it. It actually is furthering a narrative about this country’s dominance about its treatment of black and brown people, about its inclination toward war and oppression that I was no longer willing to cosign or participate in, and at that point, it would’ve been more painful for me to continue participating in the anthem than to not participate and deal with the backlash that came from it.

Amira: Yeah. What was the reaction when you did your protest?

Toni: The reaction to my protest? There actually was not much of a response to me directly for a number of games. The first person I remember saying anything to me on my team, at my school, anybody was the president of Manhattanville College.

Amira: Oh, wow.

Toni: He came to me, and he said, “If anybody gives you a problem, come to me.” I remember saying something like, “Okay. What are you talking about?” I didn’t even know that he was talking about my protest, and then I said, “Oh well, it’s fine. No one has said anything to me,” but then after that, I learned that some parents of teammates were threatening to go to the NCAA, and they had…

Amira: A teammate?

Toni: Of my teammates. Yeah. Parents of my teammates.

Amira: Oh, wow.

Toni: There had been some grumblings that I wasn’t aware of.

Amira: Could you feel the tension in your team?

Toni: After it became known and discussed on the team that people were aware that I was protesting, yeah. Then, the tension was very palpable, but I don’t remember feeling any tension until the moment I knew that people were upset. I don’t know if people had noticed and not said anything. I really don’t know. I hadn’t told anyone that I was planning to protest. I actually hadn’t even told my family, and they used to drive up from New York City, but they’re all educators, so they would get to the game as fast as they could, but they would get there a little late every game. They always missed the anthem, and they didn’t even know until all of this hit the fan.

Really, there was no discussion until that moment that it just exploded on our team and it turned into this team meeting, where we all ended up having to agree to disagree because there was no compromise, because I was not willing to stay in the locker room. I was not willing to discontinue the protest. There may have been other suggestions, because as you know, my protest was that I would stand, but I would turn about faced to the flag. At the time, as I thought through how to protest, I had decided to not exit the court for reasons that I stated already, and had decided not to sit down because I felt like that would very visibly separate me from my team.

I actually thought at the time that the least disrespectful way to protest would be to turn the other way, which seemed a little silly now because of the response, and even the other NFL player taking a knee, and raising a fist and linking arms, I feel like turning the other way is actually symbolically much more confrontational. It’s a little funny to see how these protests have played out in comparison.

Amira: Did you feel like similar to today that no matter what you did, it wasn’t going to be acceptable and the way that then it becomes about disrespecting the flag, or the country, or the troops? Were there a way that rhetorically tried to misinterpret, or assign disrespect to your protest in particular?

Toni: Oh, absolutely. I think the new wave of protest has certainly crystallized for me that no matter what I did, it wouldn’t have made a difference. I don’t think I had all of that then, but I received tons of hate mail, and my protest was talked about, I think on every single news outlet and local papers, national papers, international papers with all of these think pieces. I think the responses were very similar to the responses we see now about the protests not being patriotic, that if you don’t like it, you should leave, you don’t deserve to be enrolled in college, you should have to be penalized, you should have your scholarship taken from you. All of these different arguments. I don’t think the public response would’ve been any different if the display of my protest had been different.

What I think was much different for me, watching the current protests play out is because this was pre social media, I was much more limited in the ways that I was able to get my message out. Actually to think that it was possible, that my protest could have sparked a movement for other players wasn’t even fathomable. There was not even a thought in my mind that the goal was to get other people to participate with me, because there was just no mechanism to do that. I originally didn’t even plan to hold a press conference, or release a statement. I did so after teammates of mine spoke to the media, and the story was getting far away from what my protest actually was about.

It was only then that I did participate in a press conference on campus, and I did release a statement, and even then though, these small sounds bites were really the only opportunities I had to convey why I was protesting. I think because the protest was very much during the post 9/11 period, it was really just one year after 9/11 when my protest started, that although I was very much against the war, and I very much connected the war to the country’s domestic policies and practices that perpetuate oppression and discrimination.

My protest very much got labeled as an anti-war protest, and I knew that that would be hard to counter and not necessarily worth it to try to counter because that was such the moment that our country was in, but it was really important to me, and I did some interviews afterward. It was really important to me that my protest was not only seen as an antiwar protest. It wasn’t an antiwar protest in the sense that I just wanted to be against the war. It was an antiwar protest in the sense that the war was emblematic of the ways that the country perpetuates these practices domestically, sort of as a training ground for then what it does internationally, and that ultimately like the kind of punish and kill default that is America is always handed out more harshly on black and brown communities, and that was important to me. That people were able to connect the two, and not just hold my protest as an antiwar protest.

Amira: In this current moment, I think we’ve seen this kind of effect spread, and it’s not just in NFL. Certainly, the WNBA has been leaders in this front. A lot of female athletes have been at the forefront of the current wave of athletic activism, not like they haven’t been there before, but I’m hopeful at least that in this moment, they’re definitely getting more recognition than a long history of black woman doing athletic activism prior to this moment. The other thing I think about is the enormous amount of risk to your livelihood that it takes to take a stand like this. The new policy, the new anthem policy, which seeks to temper descent, it feels like it might be very successful. Did you think about the risk or the consequences? If you did, how did you push yourself past that in order to continue to protest?

Toni: I definitely thought about consequences on some level. Not to minimize youthfulness, but I really do think that there is such power in the college age, or just that period where you’re a young person where I do think my appreciation for consequences is different than it is now. It was different than it is now. I think you have this powerful moment as a young person where you are at sort of your peak critical thinking, and you’re sort of at your … You’re still growing in your appreciation for consequences, and not in a bad way, but just like the possibility of getting arrested, or the possibility of being met with bodily harm.

My relationship to those things was just different then, than it is now as an adult with a family, and children, and a career. You just have different things at stake, which I think that’s nothing to minimize when we’re talking about professional athletes, and it’s nothing to minimize when we’re talking about black women, and black women athletes who’ve just historically had a ton at stake, and their at-stakeness has always looked very different from men.

I think from that sense, I did know that there could be consequences, and I had no idea what they could be. Luckily for me, I think because I played division three basketball, my protest was not silenced in the way it would have likely been playing in a division one school. In fact, there was another player, Deirdre Chapman who protested for a game, and she played for a division one school. I want to say University of Virginia. That protest stopped after one game and the school released a statement basically saying that, “The protest was not intended to draw attention away from the program or to disrespect the program in any way.” I think because I wasn’t in school on an athletic scholarship, that allowed me to continue to protest in a way that would not have been possible at another school, and had my protest stopped after one game, no one would have ever known about it.

There was that part of the consequences. Then, in terms of my physical safety, probably I didn’t fully appreciate all of the ways that consequences could show up. I didn’t anticipate getting death threats. I didn’t anticipate that my story would go international. I didn’t anticipate that someone would trespass onto campus and walk onto the court to put a flag in my face, and to intimidate me, and I didn’t expect to be ostracized. All of these things that you can’t anticipate or plan for, particularly at small school where you’re not visible, but I ultimately think … I knew that as a young person growing into my activism, and growing into my identity, the cost of not protesting was too great for me. If I had distinguished that this anthem was something that I disagreed with, fundamentally disagreed with, and I continued to participate because I was scare … Then, I didn’t have the courage to seek justice in the ways that I said I stood for. That was really important to me to prove for myself that I could actually be the activist that I said this country needed in order to be more just.

Amira: Yeah. I think that’s so powerful. I really appreciate what you’re saying about growing into your activism. I work with a lot of college students, a lot of college athletes, who I imagine similar to you and even, I think Thomas Smith and John Carlos as well who are in a college space and reading a lot of things, and growing in many ways. I think they’re looking for ways to express some of the things they’re learning, and how they’re growing into their activism. If you could, what would you say to college athletes, or non-athletes who are thinking about, and identifying more injustices, and starting to understand the effects of systemic racism, and inequality, and want to express that in some way? What words of encouragement might you leave them?

Toni: That’s a good question. I actually have … Through my job, at the New York Civil Liberties Union, I do work with students both directly, and also through advocacy, and I was involved in monitoring the March for Our Lives student walk outs that happened after Parkland, and supporting students who were walking out of school. In addition to advocating for students, post Kaepernick’s protest, who started taking a knee. I think it’s twofold. One, there’s work to be done with adults who work with students to have them reconsider the knee jerk reactions to punish descent and to punish critical thinking.

I think getting adults to be adult allies, and to see that student athletes or students who are beginning to think more critically about issues, and beginning to weave together their personal experiences with actual policies and practices is part of learning. Right? Just like we say sports is not separate from society, it is society. The same is true for students. Having adults be willing to fold into students learning what they’re experiencing rather than punishing descent and basically mandating that students only learn certain content, and only learn in certain ways. I think in order for us to develop into an actual healthy robust democracy, we need to allow that to happen.

Then, for students, something I’ve been asked by students time and time again is how do you keep going even when it looks like you’re not going to win? Very much so for me, when I protested, I didn’t have a campaign plan. I didn’t even have a grounded sense of all of the policy reform agendas that should be on the table to get us to the promise land. I didn’t have all that information. I just knew this isn’t right. There’s something really wrong about the messaging of this practice. There’s something really wrong about our notion of equality and equity in this country. There’s something really broken. That was enough for me to make a different choice.

I think for students, telling them that it’s okay not to have all the answers, and actually we shouldn’t prescribe to have all the answers, but just to take the next step. None of us are going to bring about revolutionary change overnight or not likely, and we’re likely not going to do it alone. Understanding that we are all part of an arc is really powerful. To know that my protest then was not the begging of a movement, and after my protest, I graduated and for all intents and purposes, fell into obscurity as far as the public discourse is concerned, but to have these protests resurface now, and to have me reincorporated into the narrative of athlete protests just like I was incorporated into the narrative in 2003, and be connected to the lineage of Muhammad Ali, and Tommy Smith, and John Carlos, and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf is really humbling and powerful.

For students to be able to see that anyone of us are connected to that, I mean, we all are connected to that. Right? That any single action can contribute to that arc, and that no singular act rests on its own, but that it’s influenced by what has come before, and will influence what is to come. I think is really powerful to know that each one us is a part of that and all of our energies are connected that way.

Finally, that the pursuit of justice is just as important as getting there. None of us know what justice will look like when get there, and when it will come, and how long it will be. That the work really need to be rooted in a deep love for the work along the way, and a deep love for building with people and connecting with people who have the same values and have the same vision for the future. The most rewarding experiences I’ve had have just been in the relationships with people that I’ve been able to build with no promise that we will be successful. Part of the success is just that we’re doing the work.

Amira: Well, there you have it. Wise and powerful words from Toni Smith-Thompson. Toni, thank you so much for joining the pod.

Toni: Thank you so much for this podcast. If I can just say, as I listen to, and participate in the discussions about athlete activism, women are not included nearly enough in the narrative, and hearing you on a podcast recently talk about Rose Robinson was completely transformative for me. Just understanding as we’re talking about athlete activism when the stories of women, particularly black women are not included in the narrative, I think it’s important to remember that it’s not because we aren’t there.

That basically every movement for social justice in this country’s history, black women have been on the front lines. The question is not where we’re black women, or the question is not why weren’t they there? The question is they were there, how are we telling this story in a way that is not encompassing black women? Right? Where is the gap? The story is in the gap of the story, and I so appreciated your interview because you blew open for me that gap, and answered some of those questions about how did black women show up? What did their activism look like? What did they have at stake, and how did they pay? Even, how did they pay in ways that was never even recognized?

Amira: Right. Precisely.

Toni: Yeah. I’m so appreciative of your work. Thank you so much.

Amira: It’s such an honor. Thank you.

Shelby Weldon