Athletes’ Activism: Is it Right to Speak Out?

If you live in America and haven’t been under a rock for the last five months, you’ve heard something on the news about the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was an African-American teenager who was shot and killed by a white police officer. While this case has made national news stories, there have a few other similar cases, including the killing of Tamir Rice (a 12-year old kid) and Eric Garner (a grown man) by police. Many people, including professional athletes, have spoken out against these killings.

But should they?

On the surface, the easy answer is yes. Athletes are people and have views just like the rest of us, and we can all speak our minds without any consequence whatsoever.

However, when athletes speak their mind, they need to be held to a different standard. It is not because of the perceived notion that athletes are not as intelligent, which is totally wrong and unfair. However, athletes need to understand that, as part of a team, they can cause a distraction in the locker room if something they say or do is controversial.

After the Ferguson grand jury decided not to indict Officer Wilson in the Michael Brown case, many athletes were outraged and spoke their mind about it. The following Sunday, before the St. Louis Rams took the field, five of their

The Rams take the field with their hands up in a “Don’t shoot” motion

players came out of the tunnel with hands up in a “don’t shoot” gesture. They received incredible amounts of backlash for this action, and this just created a distraction for the Rams that did not need to be there.

As for Eric Garner, his death was caught on video. In the video, multiple police officers were attacking Garner and strangled him to death with their bare hands. In the video, you could audibly hear Garner yell “I can’t breathe”, but the police officers continued to strangle him anyway.

As a response to this, a few NBA players (started by Derrick Rose, and later joined by LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Deron Williams, among others) wore shirts with the words “I Can’t Breathe” on it. This put NBA commissioner Adam Silver in an awkward spot, who had to write a carefully crafted statement that condemned the players for breaking NBA attire rules while also not going against their viewpoints.

After reading “Where are the Jocks for Justice?” by Kelly Candaele and Peter Dreier, we discussed the issue of athletes’ activism in class. Overall, the prevailing thought was that athletes should be allowed to express their thoughts, but with a catch. They need to understand that it can create a distraction in the locker room, and it can alienate some of the fan base.

Obviously, many people look up to athletes, and if someone admires one, they would seemingly want to be just like them. When there is a very controversial issue that someone may value strongly, and their favorite athlete publicly takes the opposing side to their personal viewpoint, that can anger fans. This may cause some fans to stop following said player/team, which ultimately hurts the bottom line.

LeBron James wear an “I Can’t Breathe” Shirt

Also, some employers may be upset if athletes speak out. When a prominent athlete speaks out for his view, many people may believe that is the message of the entire team or league. For example, with LeBron James wearing the “I Can’t Breathe” shirt, many fans may believe that this is the message of the Cleveland Cavaliers or the entire NBA. While it may or may not be, teams have incentives to not show their true views, so as to not alienate any fans. Thus, athletes speaking out on any controversial issue could be an issue for them. All of this was discussed in class.

None of this is to say that athletes should not speak out for their beliefs, but that they should just be very careful when they do. They need to realize that they are a part of a team, and speaking out can cause unwanted distractions. Also, there views can be incorrectly associated with the views of everyone on the team, driving some fans away. While athletes definitely deserve the right to speak out for their political views, they just need to be careful and understand the consequences before they do.

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One thought on “Athletes’ Activism: Is it Right to Speak Out?

  1. I like how you ended off saying that ultimately it is the choice of the athletes to express their political views or not, so long as they are responsible for the consequences of their actions. I think it is up to the individual athlete to personally make the decision to speak up on political and societal injustices, at his/her own timing. Given the pressures faced, a conscious decision must be made by the athlete to choose whether, and when he/she wants to take the risk. It may be easier to not say anything and suppress all opinion (and many athletes do choose that route), but for some it will be unbearable on their conscience. Others may feel that it is not yet the right time to express their opinion (perhaps they are waiting to be more established and influential), or feel that there is another better platform or opportunity to do so. While we are free to criticize their decisions, these should not degenerate into personal attacks; we should respect their freedom of choice and speech, and also be sensitive to the restraints that they operate under. Of course this does not legitimize use of violence or harm by athletes to express an opinion. Personally I am very inspired by Mohammad Ali and his acts of civil disobedience (e.g. refusing to enlist in the Army after being conscripted, because of his opposition to the Vietnam War), as well as his desire to see justice served for the Black community, which he was able to express beautifully and powerfully with words.

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