There is no avoiding the tense topics of race, police brutality, and injustice. The country is divided, and it is apparent that the Civil Rights movement is not merely a moment in history; rather it is an ongoing struggle. Looking back over the past couple of years we see the turmoil that has been engulfing the country; Trevon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ferguson, and this year Charlottesville, only to name a few. The impact of these instances not only shook the national stage, but rippled through the sports world as well.
We look back to witness the outspokenness of some of the athletes on subjects like these: the iconic first raise of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the Heat in solidarity with Travon Martin, Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the National Anthem, and many more. In recent weeks the idea that athletes should stick to sports has surfaced yet again. This comment is not a new one, and it certainly will not be the last time we hear it.
Athletes are paid millions of dollars to perform at the highest level of competition. Their performance is a form of entertainment for millions of people around the world. Beyond just the entertainment value there is also an element of being iconic. People look to athletes as an example of hard work, defying odds, and being the best one can be. They serve a role in societal shaping beyond just entertainment, something recognized within the codes of conduct of all American professional sports. These codes of conduct dictate the proper edict for athletes within the sport, as well as outside of it, because it is recognized that athletes are in fact influences on the people who watch them.
Being in the spotlight 24/7 is a tough place to be. All semblance of privacy are nearly nonexistent, and every action and quote is criticized mercilessly. This is also a form of power. With everyone hanging on every word you say, every step you take, always watching you, (pun intended), the ability to deliver an opinion or message develops. This ability is guaranteed to succeed in getting the information out. So why is there discrepancy when some athletes use their clout to speak out?
It is entirely predicated on the topic that is being spoken about. In the case of Houston flooding, JJ Watt spoke for the needed support and aid of the people, something that everyone can agree to. The physical damage in Houston, the financial losses, and loved ones lost or separated are all things people can readily get behind. In this way Watt has used his status and profession to unite people for a cause with a common goal of restoring Houston. He has set a positive example for everyone and united them around sports. In this case we see the power of sports, an event that at its core unites people to rally behind an idea, and in this case that same mentality is behind aiding Houston.
On the flip side to this there is Colin Kaepernick. His controversial decision to not stand for the National Anthem has plagued his NFL career to date. He has become the leper of football, because his public outcry for social justice for African Americans in the United States has been deemed too much baggage. No team wants to take a chance on him out of fear that his political statements may affect the team, their mindset, and their image. Teams have also been concerned with where Kaepernick’s head is at; can he play effectively? Will this media circus be too much of a distraction? Should there be a national stage for him to partake in every week through an NFL team? These are legitimate questions for any football organization that is trying to compete in the NFL. As a professional athlete the sport is your job, your livelihood, and a responsibility, but all of that comes with many different hats. These athletes are icons, role models, and inspirations, and they are expected to act as such. So why then are athletes told to “stick to sports” when it comes to uncomfortable topics such as racism, inequality, or police brutality? It appears as though that as long as the topic at hand is something that everyone can collectively get behind, like providing relief for victims of natural disasters, then it is okay as an athlete to use sports as an outlet. But if the topic has some semblance of division, or differing opinions, then the sports stage is not the place for it.
It seems wildly unfair that an athlete, someone who has been given the power of fame, can only speak to things that are inherently noncontroversial. A lot of the athletes that participate in the sports we hold so dear, have experienced the inequalities that plague our country, with and without stardom, on the streets and even in the sports arena. But sports are events that require unification, from the team playing, to the fans observing. Just think about what a fan base is, a collection of people rallying behind a team, an idea. This kind of environment is the breeding ground for instances of collective effervescence, to unite. Sports have the ability to transcend boundaries that ordinary actions fail to overcome. They have the innate ability to project meaning without words, an example being Jesse Owens winning four gold medals in 1936 Olympics, essentially destroying Hitler’s concept of Aryan superiority. Jesse Owens’ moment in history is marked as a great stride, not only against Nazis, but against the idea of inequality, and that moment can been hailed as an American act of patriotism. So with that, explain to me why an athlete should “stick to sports?”
From my point of view, following in the footsteps of people like Jesse Owens, who made a statement in the face of adversity, is in fact sticking to sports! It is also an example of sticking up for what is right. Kaepernick refused to stand for an anthem that promotes the ideas of freedom, while the state of the country fails to meet that, and frankly I understand that. While my grievances may be of another nature, I can agree that the state of the country is not what I think it was intended to be, and I can also agree that the inequalities that my fellow man faces are unjust. Utilizing sports to disseminate the fact that these issues need to be addressed is in fact very sports like, and if anything the fact that it makes people uncomfortable shows how real this topic is. So yes athletes, stick to sports! Stick to what you are doing, and use your power as role models to influence the people. And do not let them censor you; use your resources to shed light on the adversity many face day to day.