Sports have been connected to politics in one way or another for as long as there have been sports. If you don’t think there were squabbles in ancient Greece about politics and social class in the Olympics, you are kidding yourself. In fact, only freeborn Greek males could participate in the ancient Olympics, meaning that protests over what it meant to be “Greek” or “freeborn” were probably common occurrences every four years. The Olympic Games themselves were used as a tool for Hellenization, the process of converting the rest of the Mediterranean world to Greek customs and practices.
Fast forward to today. The Black Lives Matter movement and the recent election of Donald Trump to the presidency have sparked a resurgence of sports figures speaking their mind about politics and social action, and even ignited some of them into real action/protest. Yet for every athlete (or coach) who makes a stand or statement, two people come out of the woodwork to shut them down. The rallying cry of that group of people is: “Sports and politics don’t mix. We don’t want your opinion and it isn’t important. Now go back to playing sports”. They couldn’t be more wrong.
Athletes have made a profound impact on American life and politics over the past 50 years. Jackie Robinson. Muhammad Ali. Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Robinson and Ali are now revered sports figures, with a plethora of movies, documentaries, about biographies about their lives and struggles—the whole works. Yet they weren’t when they played. They weren’t “American heroes”. The broad populace of this country detested them, threatened them, insulted them. But they persevered… which is exactly what the athletes of today need to do when confronted with the same type of backlash.
The great thing about modern athletes is that they know how much impact their words have. LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Colin Kaepernick recognize how quickly their speeches and stands will spread to an incredible number of people, and just how powerful that is. All those little kids out there wearing LeBron jerseys, or Carmelo jerseys, or Tina Charles jerseys… they look up to their sports heroes and will hopefully take their words to heart. When athletes and other figures with a lot of influence speak up now, it creates a conversation, but more importantly, it inspires and empowers young people in the generations to come. Muhammad Ali is a great example. Ali still resonates with many of today’s athletes; LeBron James just donated $2.5 million to a Smithsonian museum for an Ali exhibit. Athletes can have a huge (positive) impact on youth and on society in general.
Unfortunately, that respect cuts both ways. One of the reasons why people retaliate so strongly against athletes speaking their minds is that they don’t want their favorite players saying something that opposes what they stand for. We have all experienced that moment when your favorite athlete says or does something stupid, mean, or even reprehensible. It doesn’t feel good. You are embarrassed, maybe even ashamed that you support this person. On the other hand, athletes are people too, and they are allowed to speak their minds about issues that are important to them. That doesn’t mean we have to support them— we must continue to call out the Curt Schilling’s of the world, who spew out racist and sexist talk given the slightest opportunity. But when we do disagree, we should do so based on what they said, not on the grounds that they are an athlete. Whether we agree with them or not, it is their right to speak.
It is a lose-lose situation for athletes, who are criticized if they don’t speak and critiqued on their points if they do. While they might gain support from some quarters for taking one path of action, they lose a similar amount from a different sector of society. There is no pleasing everyone, and athletes shouldn’t try. This is especially true since one argument against them is “We don’t care what they say”. At its root, this argument stems from the ancient “dumb jock” stereotype. And while it is true that most professional athletes don’t have the educational background of political pundits or journalists, that fact doesn’t preclude them from being intelligent and informed on the subject they are discussing. Many athletes have personal experiences with poverty and discrimination, and their current place in the spotlight enables them to speak out for people who don’t have nearly as much reach. Athletes making their minds known is important, and it means a lot to many people.
Recently, however, coaches have joined athletes in discussing recent events. Steve Kerr, Stan Van Gundy, and Greg Popovich (twice) all spoke their thoughts on the election and the state of the country, and while they received support, they also took severe criticism. People argued that as “leaders of the team”, they shouldn’t speak out. After all, that could divide the team, both in the locker room and among management/coaching staff. While it is certainly possible that people in the organization may have taken offense to their comments, we have already seen how comments or non-comments of any sort will anger people. I would argue that coaches are leaders of the team, and as such, they should speak out on opinions that are important to them.
What do we want from our leaders? People always say they don’t like politicians, who are seen as conniving, two-faced, and never say what they actually think. If coaches are leaders, shouldn’t saying what they think on a public stage be a bonus? It’s hypocritical to argue otherwise. Arguments against coaches speaking out, even more than athletes, has to do with what they are saying, not the fact that they are saying it. And that’s fine. But that shouldn’t be an argument against them speaking on political subjects, or anything else. Isn’t the mark of a great coach that they mold their player’s lives off the court as well as on? Well, they can’t do that if they aren’t allowed to speak their minds.
One can agree or disagree with the specific opinions of athletes or coaches. One could even abandon their fandom if strongly rubbed the wrong way. But instead of shouting down athletes, we should be yelling words of encouragement. They have a platform for making a difference, and they should be praised for trying to change things for the better. It’s an uneasy time in this country, and people need leaders to follow. Nobody thought that Muhammad Ali or Jackie Robinson would become household American heroes, yet they have. Any of these current athletes might be recognized as such a figure 50 years from now. After all, the little kid wearing a LeBron James jersey today could be the president of the future.