The Time for Athletes to Speak Out Is Now

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Should athletes speak out on social and political issues? Recent incidents indicate that they should. They will be needed more than ever in the months to come. Athletes are admired as role models, and many people care what they have to say about society’s most pressing issues. Athletes can be effective in raising issues that people are unaware of – and in keeping certain ones prominent in the public mindset. 

Right now, America is focused on racial tensions and the protests over the horrific killing of George Floyd. However, there were justified outrage and protests over previous incidents of police brutality, but little came of it in the form of police reform and training as well as prosecution of police officers caught using excessive force. The sustained protests going on now will not totally disappear, but given our short attention span and the demands of the 24-hour news cycle, other issues will dominate the national conversation during the coming months. These topics will range from our continued battle with COVID-19 and the stressed U.S. economy to the 2020 presidential election and our brewing cold war with China. Inevitably, there will be more mass shootings. Two years ago, school shootings prompted a national push for gun control, but that issue hasn’t gotten much attention lately. 

With the recent return of live sports, that’s where athletes come in. Many athletes have spoken out against what happened in Minnesota. They should continue to do so. 

Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics drove 15 hours to lead a protest march in Atlanta, near where he grew up. LeBron James and other Black athletes and entertainers recently announced that they were forming a voting rights organization called More Than a Vote, which will seek to fight voter suppression of minorities. Many prominent athletes expressed outrage about the Floyd incident, including Michael Jordan, Odell Beckham Jr., Carson Wentz, Magic Johnson, Trevor Lawrence, and Lisa Leslie. Due to efforts led by NASCAR’s only black driver, Bubba Wallace, the racing organization banned Confederate flags. Many athletes in all sports have been kneeling before games and wearing social justice messages on their jerseys.  

Athletes should continue to use their platforms to protest police brutality and the inequalities of the criminal justice system — before and after games. Some, including Kyrie Irving, asserted that the NBA should not resume its season because it would distract from the social movement for racial equality. However, athletes’ platforms to speak out on social issues comes from their fame, and if they aren’t playing sports, they won’t be in the spotlight.  

Many people view sports as a diversion from the struggles of the real world and just want to watch sports as a way to escape from serious issues for a few hours. They want the athletes to focus on playing the sport and to stay away from giving their opinions on controversial and political issues. 

I get that, but I believe more important principles are at stake right now. I also believe that American history is rich with examples of societal change being prompted on our playing fields and athletic arenas. A couple of years ago, Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham made news when she quipped that professional athletes like LeBron James should shut up and dribble. I think this is missing the point. We should admire the courage Black athletes such as Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, and Tommie Smith, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had in advocating for civil rights. The sublimely talented U.S. women’s national soccer team did more than win gold. It advanced our nation’s consciousness on the subject of fairness regarding equal pay for female athletes – and women in professions across the board. 

It can take courage for athletes to take a stand on social issues. Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship title and criticized for his outspoken stances. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were sent home from Mexico City and denounced as unpatriotic when they raised their fists during the playing of the national anthem at the 1968 Olympic Games. It took decades for Ali, Smith, and Carlos to be viewed as civil rights icons. It would be easy for today’s athletes to sit back, avoid controversy, collect huge paychecks, and not jeopardize endorsement deals. 

No professional athlete suffered more for being outspoken on social issues than Colin Kaepernick. After he took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality, he was essentially blackballed from playing in the NFL even though he was good enough to be a starter or backup. As a goodwill gesture, an NFL team should give Kaepernick an opportunity to compete for a place on their roster.  

During the 1990s, many people criticized athletes who didn’t speak out on social issues for fear of being controversial. Now, many professional athletes have found their voice and are speaking out for social justice, especially through social media. They want to use their fame and platforms to promote causes they believe in. In the next few months, their voices will be needed more than ever. This is a trend that should be celebrated as a slam dunk. Outspoken athletes can keep the conversation about the injustices of the criminal justice system going and eventually help move the ball forward. 

Larry Atkins is the author of “Skewed: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Media Bias.” He teaches journalism at Temple University and a course on journalism and social and ethical issues in sports at Arcadia University. Twitter: @larryatkins4

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