Athletes Take on Activism
From the outside looking in it’s very easy to want to be entertained by the sports that we love and not think about the social issues going on in your state, city, or backyard. But what about the athletes putting themselves and their families at risk, the ones focusing their energy beyond the court or field?
Lebron James, now the face of the NBA and a known leader to his peers, was told to “shut up and dribble” by television host Laura Ingraham when speaking on how he felt about critical comments Trump made against Hillary Clinton during her first run at the presidency.
In 2016, NFL free agent Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem in protest against racial injustice. Kaepernick commented that this country, “oppresses black people and people of color.” Although many other NFL players joined Kaepernick in his kneeling protest, he was also widely criticized and the NFL made a motion to fine teams if their players took a knee.
Society puts these athletes on a pedestal like a trophy to modern success, so why can’t they stand on a soapbox? In the past, we’ve seen athletes make statements that challenge the status quo with some mixed results. But 2020 has seen a rise in athlete activism that makes it clear that athletes can and should voice their opinions on politics and human rights.
Chris Chiozza, a Brooklyn Nets point guard who was raised in Memphis, Tennessee, explains that balancing activism and basketball during the NBA bubble this year was a challenge all in itself.
“It was one of the hardest points in my career,” Chiozza says, “Every day you want to just focus on the game, getting better and focus on winning, but at the same time, I come from the South. My family and closest friends are still there so you can’t just go and play every day and sit and ignore what’s going on in the world because not only do I fear for my family but I fear what could happen in my own city where I was raised.”
Still, through these times there have also been a lot of positives gained despite the unfairness going on in today’s world.
During the 2016 election, only 20% of NBA players were eligible to vote. In the 2020 election Chris Paul. who played for the Oklahoma City Thunder during the NBA bubble but was recently traded to the Phoenix Suns, took a leadership role during the hard times of the NBA bubble and pressed to try and get every player to make themselves eligible to vote. With his handwork and help from other leaders in the league, Paul was able to help to get over 90% of players registered (NBC Sports). There were 15 teams in the league that had 100% of their players registered to vote.
“Going out and voting as an athlete in today’s game with all of the injustices going on was such a huge deal to me,” said Cameron Payne of the Phoenix Suns in an interview with Inside Fullerton. “You saw your brothers and the entire basketball community fed up with all of the problems that were going on and some that had never dealt with things like this. This was something that I dealt with my entire life. So it made me feel like I accomplished and helped something in life that was so much bigger than the game.”
There has always been criticism thrown at athletes for speaking up for what they felt was right or wrong outside of their sports. Many people use sports and entertainment as a way to forget about the problems going on in the world. But they fail to recognize that these athletes are also human and have to deal with the same problems in the world once they go home.
In 1946 Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a minor league baseball contract with the Dodgers—one of the most important moments in American sports history. Jackie received a lot of hate for just being an African American on the team, but he went on to become one of the best players in baseball history to ever play the game.
In 1967 world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali was drafted to join the fight in the Vietnam War, but he refused because of his religious beliefs and was arrested for draft evasion. For this Ali was stripped of his title and couldn’t fight for three years. In a sense, some could understand Ali’s decision to not join the war but at the same time, this is the law that applied to each American.
In the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, American sprinter Tommie Smith won the 200-meter race and John Carlos came in third. During the national anthem, they both held up a fist, expressing the Black Power salute.
Today, athletes continue to struggle with the decision to not just ignore what’s going on in the world outside of them playing sports, and make their beliefs or experiences public. But they often come from communities deeply impacted by racial injustice. African Americans have faced oppression and discrimination since the founding of the country. Mississippi was the last state in the US to have a flag that featured the Confederate battle emblem.
In the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter protests that followed the death of African American George Floyd this May, the state was under pressure to change its flag, with some protesters demanding the removal of statues or monuments that could be perceived as symbols of racism, including some Confederate monuments. In June 2020, protestors tore down a statue of Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Virginia. Davis was the president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. These were both huge statements that opened a lot of eyes to the world, athletes, citizens and even people that didn’t take place in any of the protests.
Now, there are athletes all over the world from different sports, levels, ethnicities and countries that feel obligated to go and speak out about the social injustices that are going on in the world. In the bigger picture, these same athletes have helped set the standard for the next generation of players to not only feel brave or comfortable enough to speak up but obligated to go out on the frontlines to speak out about racial injustices.