Do athletes have a responsibility to be advocates of social justice?
The latest highly publicized protest and controversy stemmed from President Trump’s call to the NFL to fire athletes who kneel during the national anthem. Many question whether kneeling is an act of disrespect to soldiers and the American flag, or an appropriate response to the injustice plaguing our country. Yet, athletes receiving backlash for protesting on their field and creating waves in social justice issues is not a new concept. As early as the Second World War, the world saw public displays of citizens expressing national and global dissatisfaction. Do athletes have a responsibility to use their platform to promote social justice?
The most recent protests began in the 2016 NFL preseason, when Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, sat down during the anthem to protest police brutality and the inequality of black people in America. After talking to veteran Nate Boyer he began to kneel, which both felt was more respectful. Kaepernick refuses to stand up, honor, and be proud of a flag for a country where he is not equal, where people of color are oppressed.
In the last couple of years, since the issue of police brutality against black bodies has emerged to the forefront in the media, many black athletes have used their platform to raise awareness. The Sunday after Trump’s comments, over 200 football players kneeled. This included the entire Dallas Cowboys team and their owner, who until then did not have a single player kneel. A few raised their fist, a gesture of black power, during the anthem or after a touchdown that Sunday as well. Recently many teams in the Women’s National Basketball Association have begun skipping or walking out during the anthem entirely. In 2016, six Rams players walked onto the field in a “Hands up, don’t shoot” pose and 2012 saw many basketball players, including Lebron James, wearing hoodies on the court, a nod to Trayvon Martin. Each of these individuals has accepted their responsibility to those affected by injustice and pay homage to the athletes and activist who have paved the way for them, and the rest of the marginalized country.
Muhammed Ali, who for a while had a tight friendship with civil rights leader Malcolm X, risked his career time and time again by making a public stance for what he believed in.
He was banned from boxing for three years, in the prime of his career, for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. “No, I am not going ten thousand miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over,” Ali explained. Even Jackie Robinson, today praised for his ability to remain calm in the face of intense racial harassment, refused to stand for the anthem after leaving the MLB.
The mid 20th century had very few publicly successful and rich black people, but they did have athletes. As role models and figures with huge audiences in a time of racial turmoil and a divided country, it seemed almost necessary they must speak out against a plague of issues affecting their communities. Today, it seems like the country is still facing some of these same issues, but even though now many people of color beyond athletes have platforms, it does not mean athletes should shy away from their responsibilities to speak out.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games rose their black-gloved fists in the air after winning first and second place in the 200 meter dash. Today, it is celebrated, but in 1968 they were banned from the games, stripped of their medals, and booed by the crowd. They were influenced by activist Harry Edwards, who told NPR in 2014, “We felt it was imperative that athletes take up their part of the struggle through a
dignified, nonviolent protest”. Today, the same is true. Athletes still have a responsibility to spread the message that some things, like human rights, are worth the consequences.
Some athletes do not want to risk their career for speaking out, or simply do not accept their responsibility to be leaders and advocates in a world of hate. These protests always have backlash, and in some cases ruin careers and opportunities. Colin Kaepernick is a free agent, even though statistically he is a great player. Michael Jordan for years strayed away from politics stating, “Republicans buy sneakers too.” It took more than a year for a white athlete, Cleveland Browns tight end Seth DuVael, to kneel in solidarity, which was only two months ago. But last week, two representatives, those who are able to change legislative in our country, knelt on the floor of the Capitol Building. The actions of these athletes are important, and will be remembered in history book as agents of change in this revolution.
Athletes have a huge audience and in many cases, money, that can be used to better the world. Their platform will reach millions of people, including those who may not know or understand the problems facing this country. Athletes have a chance to change the minds of people who vote and people who are able to change the world a little bit too. Every time someone’s Sunday night football, twitter feed, or award show gets interrupted by a stance against hate, someone gets angry. Whether they are angry at the messenger or the message, an idea is planted into their mind, and a conversation is started. Change starts with the ideas that are planted into people’s minds. We are all living in a social revolution, so you need to start listening and start talking.