Jocks (and Coaches, and Industry Leaders) for Justice?

We look up to athletes as role models. We want them to behave professionally, and say and do the right thing at all times, while also playing to the best of their abilities during games. The debate in today’s world that comes up is what exactly is the right thing to say or do, and if anything should be said, or done, at all.

The past few months have been filled with numerous controversial stories over the actions of police officers against other people. The first came when Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri. The controversy is over whether or not Darren Wilson, the officer that fired at Brown, was acting in self-defense after Brown attacked him and attempted to take his gun, or whether Brown did not actually do anything wrong, and the officer shot him in a reckless case of police brutality. The grand jury of the case chose to not indict Wilson, which sparked continuous protests in Ferguson.

Just days after the decision was announced, five players on the St. Louis Rams football team came out during pregame introductions holding their hands up, resembling the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture that has been common during protesting. Some, including fans of the team and even St. Louis police departments, have expressed their anger towards the players for expressing their opinions, but the organization is supporting their players’ actions, claiming that they can exercise their freedom of speech.

Rams players, like Tavon Austin, have received both support and hate for their pre-game protest.

Rams players, like Tavon Austin, have received both support and hate for their pre-game protest.

Then, just one week ago, the police officer that choked New Yorker Eric Garner was also let off without penalty. The video of the events from July shows Garner claiming that he has not done anything wrong, and is growing increasingly frustrated that the cops keep bothering him. They took his resistance to move as aggressive, and brought the asthmatic Garner to the ground in a chokehold. Despite Garner repeatedly saying he couldn’t breathe, the officer did not relent, and Garner eventually went into cardiac arrest and did not survive.

Derrick Rose, point guard of the Chicago Bulls basketball team and one of the most popular players in the league, sported an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt during warm-ups before his game against the Golden State Warriors to show his disdain for the outcome of the case. Numerous other athletes, including basketball star LeBron James, followed suit, and have generated a great deal of support for Garner.

These protests offer the perfect examples of how sport and other areas of life can crossover, and how people can either support, or argue against, athletes speaking their minds. The theme of this semester in the school of Literature, Science, and Arts is “Sport and the University.” Special classes, like Political Science 101, offer a focus on sports and how they impact different areas of society. I attended the opening event of the semester, the “Game Plan: Achieving Success at Michigan and Beyond,” panel, which featured Michigan numerous coaches and faculty members discussing how they have found success, and giving advice to attendees on how they can reach similar heights. The second event I attended was the Michigan Sport Business Conference, an annual event that attracts students with an interest in business from across the university, along with some of the most powerful executives in the sports industry.

Both of these events had great quotes and touched on many important topics, but none were as serious, or controversial, as the Michael Brown or Eric Garner killings. Attendees could have asked one of the speakers about a number of controversial issues, and why they have not spoken out and shared their opinion, but no one, especially the high-level team executives in attendance like John Collins, the Chief Operating Officer of the Detroit Red Wings, would willingly speak out on issues of that magnitude.

In Kelly Candale and Peter Dreier’s article, “Where Are the Jocks for Justice?”, they criticized athletes like Michael Jordan for not speaking out on social issues, and referred to those that did as “courageous”. But nowhere in the article did they discuss if coaches of teams or others in powerful positions in the sports world should say something about the same issues. Why should the athletes be held to a higher standard than those they work around?

Are they worried about losing money? When Michael Jordan was asked whether or not he would support a Democrat’s stance on trying to improve labor conditions in clothing factories, he refused to, because “Republicans buy shoes too.” For businessmen and women in the sports industry, it is very important to protect their money, because, as MSBC described, the ultimate goal is to be generating revenue. Are they willing to risk this, just to say they are unhappy with some issue?

Do they want to resist the bad publicity that could come with sharing their thoughts? Speaking your mind can be dangerous, as was the case for Jeff Wilpon, the Chief Operating Officer of the New York Mets. He recently spoke out against one of the team’s employees, who was having a child out of wedlock, and frequently brought up her pregnancy in meetings. The woman is now suing him, and if her claims are true, his reputation will be tarnished. Wilpon’s case shows how costly it can be to say how you truly feel.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand with their fists raised.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand with their fists raised.

So the question remains- should athletes, along with their coaches, others in the sports world, and anyone else, feel compelled to speak out when they feel that an injustice has occurred? Should athletes, and the coaches at the panel, and the executives at MSBC, be the next “jocks for justice”, or should they go against the ways of John Carlos and Tommie Smith, the two Olympic track runners that proudly stood for equal rights for African-Americans on the medal stand, and simply play their sport? It is difficult to answer, but until there is less risk associated with speaking out, it is likely that few athletes will continually share their opinions.