Should Professional Athletes Feel Obligated to be Social Activists?
By: Chris Youngpeter
In 2016, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick touched off an avalanche of criticism and support when he refused to stand for the national anthem before 49ers football games. Kaepernick’s refusal to stand was a silent protest in response to the mistreatment of African Americans by police and others in the United States. Far from being a singular act of athlete activism, Kaepernick’s protest is the latest in a series of instances of athletes speaking out against injustices in the U.S. The revival of activism among professional athletes in a politically charged moment in U.S. history begs the question: Do professional athletes have an obligation to speak out and support movements of social activism in their own communities and across the country?
There is a rich history of activism by professional athletes in the United States. The pinnacle of this activism occurred in the mid-1900s. In 1967, Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into military service in the Vietnam War. Other famous black athletes, including Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) publicly supported Ali’s decision at a meeting dubbed the “Ali summit.” Ali’s decision cost him his title belt and led to a felony conviction for draft evasion that was ultimately reversed by the Supreme Court. During the Summer Olympics in 1968, U.S. medalists John Carlos and Tommie Smith wore black gloves and raised their fists during their medal ceremony in a symbol of Black Power. Both men received death threats and were suspended and sent home by the Olympic committee. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar boycotted the 1968 games entirely “to call attention to the rampant racial injustice of the time,” and was called “un-American” for it.
Activism by high profile professional athletes stagnated in the late 1900s. Michael Jordan, arguably the most famous athlete of the twentieth century, famously avoided publicly discussing controversial political issues. The trend of hesitancy has ended in the last few years. In 2012, basketball players on the Miami Heat protested the Trayvon Martin killing by taking a picture wearing hoodies. In 2014, college and professional athletes protested the police actions that resulted in the death of Eric Garner by wearing T-shirts that said “I Can’t Breathe.” Many WNBA players have publicly supported the Black Lives Matter movement. Four of the biggest stars in the NBA made a speech at the 2016 ESPY awards “urging fellow athletes to push for change on issues of race, policing and violence.”
Some commentators would suggest that it is easy for today’s athletes to be social activists because, unlike those in previous generations, athletes today have little or nothing to lose from activism. I disagree with this sentiment. Athletes may no longer face prosecution or public denigration to the same extent as Muhammad Ali in the 1960s, but they still face significant blowback for being social advocates. Brandon Marshal, a linebacker for the Denver Broncos, felt the sting of his decisions to follow in Kaepernick’s footsteps and kneel for the national anthem when he lost two endorsement deals. In addition to financial costs, athletes also risk alienating their fan base. These consequences can prevent athletes from protecting their livelihood and being agents of change in their community.
It is unfair to characterize athletes who choose not to become social activists as merely “protecting their brand.” Someone with the talent and financial resources of LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony, two NBA stars, may be protected from overt acts of retaliation from the league or team management. Other professional athletes do not have this luxury. It is understandable why an athlete on the fringes of a roster would not want to publicly broadcast controversial political opinions. In 1992, Craig Hodges, a member of the Chicago Bulls, gave President George H.W. Bush “a letter asking him to do more to end injustices toward African-Americans.” Despite being a member of two straight NBA title-winning teams, no team was willing to sign Hodges for the next season. Hodges believed he was blackballed for his open activism. This problem has not been solved in the intervening twenty-five years. Executives in the NFL, speaking anonymously about Colin Kaepernick, have said that a team that wants to sign him “will have to give at least some thought to how the move would be taken by the ticket-buying public.” It is possible that Kaepernick will be blackballed by NFL teams due to his activism, so it would not be illogical for athletes in his position to choose less public ways of improving their communities. With this in mind, it should not be considered “selling out” when an athlete is not a public social activist.
So, what is to be expected from an athlete who chooses to be an activist? After police officers in Cleveland, Ohio, were not indicted for the killing of Tamir Rice, one Baltimore activist called on LeBron James to protest by refusing to play games for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He did not take this advice. In the aftermath of the Alton Sterling shooting in Louisiana, Carmelo Anthony opined that social media “hashtag” campaigns would no longer be sufficient for those who choose to speak out. This sentiment was echoed after the Sterling shooting by New Orleans Saints running back, Mark Ingram. Anthony suggests that activists engage with politicians directly. This includes local officials, congressmen, assemblypersons, and community leaders, among others. Anthony also suggests that activism should begin on the community level, and those who participate should work to build a mutual respect between police officers and the people who live in the streets that those officers patrol.
There is no perfect roadmap for deciding how to be an activist professional athlete. A few parameters can be set, though. Violence, or the advocating of violence, is not acceptable. Those who participate in activism should make an effort to educate themselves on the current issues that are affecting their community and the historical causes of these issues. Activist athletes should invest their time and resources into their communities. Activists should understand that not every opposing opinion is held in bad faith and should avoid “scorched earth” tactics that poison the well for future progress. There is plenty of value in starting and taking part in difficult conversations about topics like race relations and police brutality. Carmelo Anthony is correct in advocating for political involvement, starting at the local level.
Professional athletes should not be forced into social activism, but those who choose it voluntarily should be encouraged to express their opinions. These athletes should build on the legacies of trailblazers like Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become driving forces for positive change in their communities.
 Mark Maske, Colin Kaepernick Made a Political Statement that Could Still Matter as He Seeks His Next NFL Job, Wash. Post, Mar. 3, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/sports/wp/2017/03/03/colin-kaepernick-made-a-political-statement-that-still-resonates-in-nfl-front-offices/?utm_term=.95cd4a32f8a5.
 Erit Yellen, Athletes Have More Power than Ever to Change the World, The Undefeated (Jul. 29, 2016), https://theundefeated.com/features/athletes-have-more-power-than-ever-to-change-the-world/.
 Craig Mills, The New Golden Age of Black Athlete Activism, Daily Beast, Oct. 3, 2016, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/10/03/black-athletes-embrace-social-activism.html.
 John Eligon & Scott Cacciola, Player’s Protest Revives a Spirit of Activism From the Days of Ali, N.Y. Times, Sep. 13, 2016, at A1.
 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: The Importance of Athlete Activists, TIME (Nov. 16, 2015), http://time.com/4114002/kareem-abdul-jabbar-athlete-activists/.
 Eligon & Cacciola, supra note 6.
 Yellen, supra note 2.
 Eligon & Cacciola, supra note 6.
 Maske, supra note 1.
 Adam Kilgore, In Wake of Police Killings, Activists Ask Athletes to Offer More than Hashtags, Wash. Post, July 8, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/sports/wp/2016/07/07/in-wake-of-police-killings-activists-ask-athletes-to-offer-more-than-hashtags/?utm_term=.fa94173fb2bf.
 Carmelo Anthony, We Athletes Can No Longer Remain on the Sidelines in the Struggle for Justice, the guardian, July 13, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/jul/13/carmelo-anthony-column-athletes-justice-police-violence.
 Kilgore, supra note 20.
 Matt Vasilogambros, When Athletes Take Political Stands, Atlantic (Jul. 12, 2016), https://www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2016/07/when-athletes-take-political-stands/490967/.
 Anthony, supra note 22.