• Brooke Tunstall

Athletes Advocating For Social Justice


Photo credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images. Athletes like Colin Kaepernick have found their voice in promoting social justice.

As much as the past five months have collectively sucked for America, there have been a few bright spots.


Traffic congestion is down and air quality has improved. Many companies are realizing that working from home is a viable business model going forward. My culinary skills have gotten really good and I’ve learned that, apparently, you can make coffee at home.


And in the midst of the worst pandemic the country has seen in a century, the worst economy since the Great Depression and the most social unrest since the civil rights and anti-war protests of the late 60s, the old chestnut about athletes having to “stick to sports” has been buried once and, hopefully, for all.


In the wake of George Floyd’s tragic death, elite athletes, both collegiate and pro, are using the platforms afforded by their status to speak out on social-justice issues and demand changes from the teams they play for and the fans they entertain.


Athletes speaking out, of course, is nothing new. Muhammad Ali is revered by many as much for his refusal to fight in Vietnam as for his greatness in the boxing ring. The raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos are among the most iconic images from the Olympics and civil rights movement. And, more recently, taking a knee during the national anthem cost Colin Kaepernick his career as an NFL quarterback.


The difference now is more people are listening, and, just as importantly, fewer are telling these courageous athletes to stick to sports. When Kaepernick took a knee, and President Donald Trump called him and fellow NFL players “sons of bitches,” it led to pressure put on the NFL and its teams, which in turn applied it to the players and black-balled Kaepernick from their league. And, for a while, the dissent stopped.


In 2018, when NBA superstar LeBron James began using his mega-platform to speak out on social-justice issues and criticize Trump, Fox News blowhard Laura Ingraham peeked out from her robe and hood and infamously told King James to “shut up and dribble.”


ESPN, long the tone-setter for American sports, claimed its ratings were being impacted by its talking heads either covering political speech from athletes or expressing their own opinions on politics. The higher-ups at ESPN made such talk verboten at the network and didn’t hesitate to start punishing non-compliant broadcasters and writers in the wallet.


But since Memorial Day weekend, when Floyd was violently murdered by a thuggish Minneapolis cop, things have been different. Athletes in almost every sport are speaking out...and the sports organizations are listening.


The NFL, wisely recognizing that it didn’t have much of a product without Black players, responded to those players’ calls to action regarding police brutality by voicing support for their cause and admitting they were wrong to silence Kaepernick and other kneelers.


The NWSL, arguably the best women’s soccer league in the world, not only allowed its players to kneel for the national anthem, it encouraged them to do so. NBA, MLS and WNBA teams have allowed players to use their televised games to send messages calling attention to police brutality and supporting calls for social reform.


College football coaches, the vast majority of them white, who have long run their programs like fiefdoms, suddenly have been unable to sweep claims of racist statements or gestures by them or their assistants under the rug. Witness West Virginia firing its defensive coordinator last week or Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy apologizing for wearing a t-shirt promoting an ultra-right news network that criticized the Black Lives Matter movement.


Not just listening but actively participating. Major League Baseball teams, whose clubhouses have long been dominated by conservative voices, have been vocal in supporting Black Lives Matter as they returned to the diamond last week. Hell, the Tampa Bay Rays even sent out a tweet demanding the arrest of Breonna Taylor’s killers.


Even NASCAR, which is as ingrained in the fabric of the Deep South as shrimp and grits or Waffle House, listened to the voice of its lone black driver, Bubba Wallace, and banned the Confederate battle flag from all its races.


Of course, the idea that sports and politics are somehow separate has long been a silly one. Most pro teams play in stadiums that were publicly funded to some degree. Who allocated those funds for sports teams to use? Politicians, that’s who.


When President Jimmy Carter, a politician, ordered the boycott of the 1980 Olympics, it impacted sports in the U.S. in a huge way. When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, it was a huge boost to the burgeoning civil rights movement. And Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant telling then-governor and staunch segregation defender George Wallace that the Crimson Tide football team would have to integrate to remain nationally competitive helped end forced segregation in many parts of the South. Sports caused a politician to change his stance.


(Granted, Bryant likely should have used his clout to do this a decade earlier and only did so after an integrated Southern Cal team whupped the Tide, 42-21, in 1971.)


In many places, sports aren’t going to be played, in large part because the COVID-19 pandemic was mishandled by - you got it - politicians. And when the economic impact of no games is felt in communities that rely on them to generate business revenue and personal income, the blame for the lack of sports is going to be placed on... politicians.


Sports and politics have always been intertwined and asking the athletes not to speak out on these issues was shortsighted, ill-informed and often racist.


And, clearly, there are many issues in which athletes have a vested interest in speaking up, including forcing college players to take the field during COVID, how amateurism is defined by the NCAA, the glaring lack of Black coaches and executives in many sports long-dominated by Black players, the treatment of female employees by sports organizations, challenges LGBT athletes still face, the aforementioned use of public funds for stadiums, how athletes protest and speak out on social-justice issues away from the field and why so few prominent social-justice organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law have long done little more than dip a toe into civil rights issues that affect athletes.


And that’s what we hope to use this space to discuss - the intersection of sports, social justice and politics. What the issues are, who in the sporting world is doing what to address them and what more needs to be done.


Michael Jordan once said he didn’t speak out on politics because “Republicans buy shoes, too.” And for a long time, that philosophy kept most athletes from speaking up. But the idea that athletes should just shut up and dribble has, thankfully, gone by the wayside, and as long as athletes continue to speak out and as long as social justice, sports and politics overlap, we’re gonna cover it here.


Till next time. Follow Brooke Tunstall on Twitter at @YesThatBrooke.

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