Words by Matthew Gozzip Staff Writer, Graphics by Nathan Zankich Art Director
In early October, the University of Michigan aired a public service announcement during their annual rivalry game against Michigan State. A sellout crowd of more than 112,000 fans stirred in their seats, seemingly more occupied with the game than with their peers on-screen.
A Michigan football player took off his helmet, exposing a compassionate man beneath the metal cage of the facemask. Two hockey players took off their bulky jerseys, revealing casual clothing. Three others took off their letterman jackets, stripping away the student athlete to reveal vulnerable young people.
Faces of different colors and compositions flashed across the screen, accompanied by varying accents: “I am not just an athlete… I am Latina… I am non-binary… I am unapologetically black… I am Muslim… I am an activist.”
Despite their difference in appearance and background, the athletes championed for a common goal — to begin a dialogue on the issues affecting them off the field.
“We challenge you to listen, ask questions and have conversations,” the video continued with different speakers. “Will you listen? Will you see me? Will you hear me? Will you listen? When the lights are off and the games are over, will you care? You celebrate us, but will you listen to us?”
This video was different from the usual public relations pitch congratulating the school on another athletic success or subtle endorsement of a sponsor. It celebrated the power of athlete activism in a social climate that is marginalizing athletes’ voices.
Activism is embedded in American culture; many of the most significant movements in history began with athletes. This article will examine the history of athlete activism, the impact of student athletes, the NFL’s commentary and the importance of solidarity in the WNBA.
Whether you follow them or not, sports have always been an influential cultural phenomenon in society. On an international level, warring nations agreed to temporary truces to watch soccer matches together, most notably during the fabled Christmas Truce of 1914, when British and German WWI troops conducted a friendly game together near the unofficial end of the conflict. The world’s game helped end the world’s war.
Nearly a century later, Ivory Coast footballer Didier Drogba rallied his home nation of the Ivory Coast after they qualified for the 2006 World Cup. The country was in civil war but the men’s national team’s performance, along with Drogba’s activism, united the nation once again.
In the United States, athlete activism has been prevalent ever since the country became linked with sports culture. In a country that prides itself on all-encompassing freedom, it is only natural that American athletes would use their privilege to bring awareness to social injustice.
From Jesse Owens’s courage in the face of Nazism during the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics to John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s “Black Power” raised fist salute in the 1968 games, the Civil Rights Movement was fueled by undeniably impressive feats of athleticism.
The “Ali Summit” of 1967, a news conference held in support of world champion boxer Muhammad Ali’s refusal to enter the the Vietnam War, brought together black athletes on a previously unknown scale. Bill Russell and Kareem-Abdul Jabbar — known as Lew Alcindor at the time — from the National Basketball Association, Jim Brown from the National Football League and Ali protested the war in a monumental event in U.S. history. All four sacrificed their reputation to bring attention to a cause they believed in.
Strength of the Student Athlete
College athletes have a more difficult time being effective social activists. They are reliant on a scholarship system and a large financial entity. If they do not bend to the will of their university, they will be rescinded an opportunity to succeed. A college athlete is expected to do two things: study and perform well as both an athlete and an investment.
On top of that, many fans react negatively to their activism. Consider the situation in the introduction: the Michigan athletics program brought in more than $150 million in revenue in 2016. When the PSA was released, however, this was all but forgotten amidst the jeers and hateful Twitter replies that followed.
At some point, universities have to do more to prepare players to succeed beyond [athletics].
UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen is one of the most talented players in all of college football. Still, he is aware of the student athlete’s burden and the delicate balance between responsibility and activism.
“I love school, but it’s hard,” said Rosen in an interview with Bleacher Report. “Football really dents my ability to take some classes that I need. There are a bunch of classes that are only offered one time. There was a class this spring I had to take, but there was a conflict with spring football. Look, football and school don’t go together.”
Widely touted as a future NFL star, Rosen continues to express his desire to reform the way student athletes are treated.
“You have a bunch of people at the universities who are supposed to help you out, and they’re more interested in helping you stay eligible,” said Rosen. “At some point, universities have to do more to prepare players to succeed beyond football. It’s a crime to not do everything you can to help the people who are making it for those who are spending it. To me, that’s a problem within the system and the way we’re preparing student athletes for the future away from football. Everyone has to be part of the process.”
Rosen is one of the most outspoken players in college athletics — an outlier in a culture that aims to restrict student voices in order to keep a broken system in place. Voices like his are important to making change, especially when many student athletes are being underserved.
In 2014, Shabazz Napier, captain of the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team, said during a press conference before the national championship game that his team “[has] hungry nights that [they] don’t have enough money to get food in” but they still have to “play up to their capabilities.”
A year later, the NCAA created a program that allowed unlimited meals for all athletes.
It was a small step forward in recognizing the concerns of athletes, but many other problems still remained. That same year, the Northwestern University football team — concerned with the power structure of sports, lack of expenditure monitoring and lack of attention to long-term health care for athletes — attempted to unionize in hopes of receiving more practical benefits for their services. It failed, but it pushed forward what is arguably the most important aspect of activism: insightful discussion.
Tackling Social Issues
The most well-known display of athlete activism is the anthem demonstration movement currently happening in the National Football League. Last season, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench during the pregame rendition of the national anthem, stating intentions to raise awareness surrounding issues that affect the black community.
Players from around the league joined him in the demonstration and the movement spread to other sports leagues, from professional to high school to even youth organizations. Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, one of the most vocal NFL social activists and Kaepernick’s close colleague, raised his fist in a similar gesture to Carlos and Smith’s in the ‘60s.
“We would rather not be demonstrating or protesting,” said Jenkins in an interview with Sports Illustrated. “Athletes have been doing this work for a long time. We just don’t hear about it, and it doesn’t get the same kind of hype. That’s where these demonstrations are useful, because regardless of how you feel about them, they keep that conversation going.”
The movement continues to this day, but at great expense. Kaepernick did not get retained by the 49ers at the end of the season and is now in limbo, a free agent that nobody wants to re-sign and a vocal activist for police reform and equality.
Recent demonstrations have been presented as “a symbol of unity” or reactionary self-defense after President Trump criticized much of the league for disrespecting the anthem.
Meanwhile, further efforts by black athletes in the community are going unnoticed.
Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, another colleague of Kaepernick’s, donated all of his endorsement money in 2017 to help programs that benefit communities and women of color. Kaepernick donated $900,000 of his million-dollar donation goal to organizations that support civil rights, education, youth mentoring and police reform. Anquan Boldin, a 14-year veteran of the NFL, decided to retire from football altogether to pursue humanitarian work.
“I didn’t [participate in an anthem demonstration], seeing the way people took that and ran with it and never talked about the issues,” said Boldin in the joint interview with Jenkins. “I didn’t want to give people an excuse to not deal with the issues that we are dealing with. They never wanted to talk about why guys were taking a knee, why guys were raising a fist. And for me, that’s the message that I wanted to get out.”
These narratives are selectively erased from mainstream consciousness, focusing more on the anthem demonstrations as the primary action instead of their actual role as the supplementary part of a bigger picture. These exclusions highlight the subconscious racial prejudices of others.
Despite this, many — including Black Lives Matter, the NAACP and even war veterans and police force members — have come to the movement’s support.
Allies from around the sports world are also joining the conversation. Last week, members of the Hertha Berlin futbol team in Germany took a knee in solidarity with the anthem demonstrations in the U.S. Even though Germany doesn’t experience the same issues that Kaepernick protested against, racism and injustice affect everyone worldwide, so a united front is critical in creating equality and equity.
The Power of Solidarity
Many men’s professional leagues are applauded for taking a stance on their budding advocacy. Still, the WNBA arguably remains the standard for effective advocacy and protest. Last year, the Minnesota Lynx and New York Liberty all wore shirts supporting the “Black Lives Matter” movement during pregame warmups in reaction to the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two unarmed black men killed by police officers.
The league fined players for not following the dress code, spurring the movement to a new level of protest. Tina Charles, center for the Liberty, received a Player of the Month award wearing an inside-out black shirt, later criticizing the league for supporting issues such as breast cancer awareness and LGBT+ pride but penalizing players for talking about an issue affecting a large majority of the league.
“We’re allowed to wear whatever we want to the games, to and from the games,” said Mystics guard Natasha Cloud in an interview with USA Today. “If they’re going to take away our right and our voice to advocate for something so important to 70 percent of the league which is African American, we’ll find other ways to do it.”
Later that week, WNBA President Lisa Borders rescinded the fines. Nearly half the league stood in solidarity for this issue, an unprecedented development that has not been matched in any other league.
Athletes are stripped of many liberties as public figures. Legally, nothing is different, but the perception of their role in society is dehumanizing. They sacrifice privacy and undergo extensive ridicule for their play and are treated as expendable commodities built to entertain.
That adversity, however, is nothing new. Athlete activism may be discouraged, but that has always been the challenge of protesting. An athlete’s perspective in activism is invaluable because they don’t analyze society like others; they are unabashed in pursuing a goal they want to achieve and are relentless in their pursuit. Instead of being complacent with settling, they strive to create the best possible outcome.
Discrediting their concerns, criticizing their forms of protest or refusing to watch them play won’t change the way athletes think. Athlete activism brought us to where we are today and continues to push the boundaries beyond the playing field.