Remember when professional sports were simply about winning games and selling stuff? Remember when athletes would go to great lengths to avoid any kind of controversy, anything that might offend a potential customer or fan?
“Republicans buy sneakers, too,” Michael Jordan famously told a Chicago Bulls beat reporter when asked why he wasn’t backing a black candidate running against former segregationist Jesse Helms. Tiger Woods repeatedly declined to pressure Augusta National Golf Club into adding female members or even adding additional black ones.
The era of the disengaged, apolitical sports stars unofficially came to a spectacular end this past week as athlete after athlete used social media, T-shirts, the tennis court and even the ESPYs to speak out in the wake of the shootings of black men in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis and of five Dallas police officers.
The list of athletes weighing in on the situation the past seven days include Serena Williams, who spoke out and raised her fist at Wimbledon; the WNBA’s Liberty and Minnesota Lynx, who wore T-shirts that honored both the slain black men and the slain Dallas police officers, and scores of NBA players, most vocally Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks. Anthony posted a mini-manifesto on Instagram, wrote a guest column in The Guardian, a British-based news organization, and spoke out at the ESPYs award ceremony, urging his fellow athletes to get involved.
“No athlete should think: If I speak up, I’m going to lose an endorsement or a sponsorship,” Anthony wrote. “Because if that’s the case, then you have to question the kind of people that you’re doing business with and ask yourself where their heads and morals are at.”
Yes, this is quite a contrast to “Republicans wear sneakers, too.” And though much of the recent activism has centered around Black Lives Matter, there has been a growing political awareness for several years with athletes using their platform to try to effect social change. Jason Collins became the first active athlete in one of the four major U.S. professioal sports leagues to come out as gay, a number of athletes have spoken out about LGBT rights, Aaron Rodgers took on a fan who shouted an anti-Muslim remark and Ed O’Bannon sued the NCAA on behalf of college athletes.
Still some observers are not completely convinced that we are witnessing a return to the days of athletes as political activists that we witnessed in the 1960s and ’70s with Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Billie Jean King and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“Are we seeing a rebirth of a generation of activist athletes after 30 years of no one wanting to speak out about anything of controversy?” said Orin Starn, a Duke University cultural anthropologist who has written extensively on sports and society. “On one hand it’s really dramatic how many athletes are speaking out. At the same time, it’s easy to tweet about the latest killing and wear a T-shirt. It’s not clear how sustained and deep this new activism is running. The athletes from the 60s and ’70s paid a heavy price for their activism.”
While we now celebrate the stances taken by many athletes from the ’60s and ’70s, at the time they took them they were often reviled. Ali, who refused to be inducted into the Army, became a pariah until the United States Supreme Court overturned his conviction and he was allowed to return to boxing after being banned for three years. U.S. sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith were kicked off the United States Olympic team after they stood, heads bowed, and gave a Black Power salute at the medal podium during the 1968 Olympics.
It’s hard to imagine that today’s athletes will face similar repercussions, though the Lynx has had to deal with some backlash after four off-duty policemen walked out of the game to which they wore their T-shirts.
Liberty guard Tanisha Wright, who spoke out at a news conference after her team wore its statement shirts last Sunday, believes that the advent of social media, specifically Twitter, has changed how athletes view their role.
“I think athletes today have more power and with that comes more responsibility,” she said. “Social media is huge these days. It gives you a platform to be able to share these things to the masses, because you have the ability to reach out and touch people . . . You get to a point where enough is enough and you say to yourself I have to use my voice to try to effect change.”
Liberty president Isiah Thomas said he encourages his players to speak out about issues they think are important. Thomas, who played for the Detroit Pistons from 1981-94, believes athletes are more comfortable speaking up now than when he played because of changes in both technology and society.
“Social media has given the athlete a voice, an unfiltered voice,” Thomas said. “The media coverage is also different and society is involved. I think we have more media members covering our sports now that don’t come in with the same biases and prejudices and stereotypes that some members of the media back then would have had.”
The question, of course, is what they can do with that unfiltered voice. Can they use it to spur social change, just as the athletes of the ’60s and ’70s did? Can they move beyond hashtags and actually impact public policy? Anthony, who has urged his Olympic teammates to take a stand in Rio next month, believes so.
“The teams and the support systems around athletes urge them to stay away from politics, stay away from religion, stay away from this, stay away from that,” Anthony wrote in The Guardian. “But at certain times you’ve just got to put all of that aside and be a human. That time is now.”