‘Stick to sports?’ Houston has long been a hot bed for social change through sports

HOUSTON — For many fans, sports is supposed to be an escape from the trials and tribulations of everyday life. When athletes try to push social awareness through various protests, they're often met with the familiar restraint, "just stick to sports."

"We're in a very, very tough time where sports and politics are becoming a conjoined thing," Rockets forward Ryan Anderson said at media day in September.

The truth is National Anthem protests in the NFL are different from other protests, but they're just part of the role athletes have played in social change for many years.

For example, in Houston, Muhammad Ali was arrested in 1967 for refusing the draft for the Vietnam War.

Houston boxing icon Reverend Ray Martin sparred with Ali, and Martin said the heavyweight champ paved the way for athletes to take a stand today.

"I can see Ali doing it," Martin said. "An average person just didn't have those type of convictions. He had much more at stake. Not only was he an outstanding fighter, but an outstanding person."

In 1973, Billie Jean King made a landmark statement for women's tennis, defeating Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes," which took place at the Astrodome.

"Bobby Riggs was too old to beat Billie Jean King anyway, but it did spotlight women's tennis. It showed women could play," said legendary Houston tennis coach John Wilkerson, who was in the stands at the Astrodome to see the match.

Wilkerson used to coach Zina Garrison, who took a stand in her own right back in 2009. Garrison, the former Olympic champion, sued the U.S. Tennis Association, pushing for fairer treatment of minorities.

"At the time I was Federations Cup captain and basically it was almost like 'be quiet and do your job,' I wasn't going to do that," Garrison said. "I wanted the next generation, like a Sloane Stephens or people like that, not to have to go through the same thing or be treated the same way."

Garrison now runs the Zina Garrison Academy at MacGregor Park. She also pointed out Houston was the birthplace of the Women's Tennis Association, deriving from the the Virginia Slims tournament at the Houston Racquet Club.