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First Five: 5 times world-class athletes used their freedom to petition

The freedom to petition creates a path for all of us to air our grievances — superstar athlete or not. Like in sports, there’s no guaranteed outcome. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

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Megan Rapinoe reacts during the World Cup celebration parade in New York in July. Carlo Allegri / Reuters
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You might think of petition as putting your John Hancock online to help save the bees. But signing a piece of paper is just one way to exercise your First Amendment right to petition. Petition also includes actions like contacting your elected officials, volunteering for a campaign or even appearing before a judge.

Here are five times famous athletes took their fights from the court to the courthouse.

Martina Navratilova

This tennis superstar has long been an advocate for gay and lesbian rights. In 1992, she campaigned against a ballot referendum in Colorado that made it illegal for sexual orientation to be a protected class in the state.

When the referendum passed, she joined a lawsuit challenging the legislation; the courts struck down the law.

Curt Flood

“Baseball was socially relevant, and so was my rebellion against it.” — Curt Flood

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For many fans, following offseason trades and signings can be almost as exciting as watching the sport itself. You can thank Curt Flood, and the First Amendment freedom to petition, for that.

In 1969, the All-Star center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals wrote a letter to the MLB commissioner refusing to accept being traded to another team. When that failed, he used his right to petition to sue MLB on constitutional grounds in hopes of stopping the trade.

He wasn’t successful in court either. Though he was shunned by baseball, sports writers and even former teammates, Flood laid the groundwork for today’s free agent market, which garners players millions of dollars each year.

Tom Waddell

Ever heard of the Gay Games? The tournament was founded by decathlete Tom Waddell, who wanted to launch an Olympic competition specifically for gay athletes. Waddell, who had thrown himself into sports as a teen to overcome fears that he was gay, tried to call his tournament the “Gay Olympics.” But the U.S. Olympic Committee sued over the use of the word “Olympics.” Waddell fought to use the word on free speech grounds but lost in the Supreme Court.

Though his petition to the courts was unsuccessful, the Gay Games carried on. The inaugural competition was kicked off by singer Tina Turner in 1982 and continues to draw tens of thousands of participants each year.

U.S. Women's Soccer Team

Allyson Felix. Billie Jean King. Nneka Ogwumike. Venus Williams. Female athletes have fought for decades for equal pay and treatment. The 2019 U.S. women’s soccer team, including superstar Megan Rapinoe, used their freedom to petition to continue the fight.

They sued the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) to get the same pay as the men’s team, just a few months before winning the 2019 Women’s World Cup. In 2020, a federal judge dismissed the team’s equal pay claim. However, the USSF announced in September 2021 it would offer the men’s and women’s players’ unions the same contract proposal, which would result in a single pay structure.

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Muhammad Ali

Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali’s fight over his religious freedom is well known. But not everyone realizes that he used his right to petition to protect his freedom of conscience.

Ali was drafted during the Vietnam War, but refused to serve because he opposed the war based on his religious beliefs. (He was a member of the Nation of Islam.) Ali was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, stripped of his heavyweight title and lost millions in endorsements and prize money.

But Ali fought and the Supreme Court in 1971 granted him conscientious objector status, overturning his conviction for draft evasion.

The freedom to petition creates a path for all of us to air our grievances — superstar athlete or not. Like in sports, there’s no guaranteed outcome. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But every time someone advocates for themselves, it lays the groundwork for the future, both at an individual and team level. And every contribution, no matter how big or small, plays an important role.

Tristiaña Hinton is senior content producer for the Freedom Forum. She is also an associate producer at MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM.

First Five is a monthly column on First Amendment issues produced by The Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan nonprofit founded by Al Neuharth. First Five is an effort to inform citizens on the freedoms protected by the First Amendment.

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