[Kurtis is a freelance writer specializing in blog writing, article writing and editing services. His prominent topics include pieces on sports and eSports. When not writing you can find him hiking throughout the New England wilderness or chilling with his girlfriend’s Saint Bernards.]
If Athletes Must “Shut up and dribble,” Then Who is Allowed to Speak on Social Issues?
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd last summer, a noticeable shift occurred nationwide in the perception of professional athletes voicing their opinions on social issues. The NBA displayed “Black Lives Matter” on their court throughout the 2020 playoffs in the bubble. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell finally embraced Colin Kaepernick after years of leading a league that black balled him. The MLB gave their blessing for players to kneel before the first pitch of games, and for “Black Lives Matter” statements to be present on shirts and the pitching mound. The WNBA partnered with its player's association to form a Social Justice Council to advance social issues. Even the NCAA allowed student-athletes to wear patches on their uniforms in support of social issues.
Before this shift, and still in many circles around the country today, some people believed athletes should remain silent on these problems and focus solely on their sport and nothing else. Not only is this a dehumanizing stance, but ignores the obvious fact that athletes, like all of us, are more than performers.
The claim has been made over and over again, that athletes should stick to their domain and leave politics and social issues aside. But if that is the case, then who is allowed to discuss issues that affect people from all different walks of life? Can a grocery store worker? A custodian? A 7th-grade math teacher? An artist? Or do these individuals also have to ‘shut up and work?’ Can they only have opinions and comments on the duties they perform and nothing else?
Should only politicians talk about politics? Why does an individual’s employment dictate the topics they are allowed to discuss? These athletes are people too, and many of them are American citizens. Not to say you have to be an American citizen to speak on these issues, but by being one, they have a right to vote, to protest, to voice what direction they think our country should be headed. These individuals have a platform due to their abilities, yet they are decried as problematic when they use that platform to speak on issues that matter for millions around the country.
Michael Jordan famously once said “Republicans wear sneakers, too,” during his playing days. He knowingly avoided being an activist on social issues, even though he had the platform to bring attention to or make change on any topic he wanted to discuss. Whether he did this for monetary purposes or to avoid scrutiny or something else entirely is only truly known to him. He has said he always saw himself as a basketball player, not a role model. But Jordan shouldn’t be pointed out as a figure to say “see, that’s how an athlete should act.” Jordan has every right not to speak out on issues if he wants to strictly focus on his playing career or his business ventures. But in the same vein, he and every other person also have a right to speak out on issues they deem important enough to voice.
To the detractors, it's not as if this is a new phenomenon in the world of professional sports. Bill Russell, the architect of the original Celtics dynasty was known as much for his activism as for his play on the court. He, along with boxing legend Muhammed Ali, NFL superstar Jim Brown and collegiate athlete at the time Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabar) spoke on these issues during a summit meeting in 1967 where the black athletes came to support Ali and his stance on the Vietnam War.
And these athletes did so during the turbulent 1960s when protesting for civil rights might risk your life and livelihood. They helped to push the nation forward, to advance the conversation, to make progress on issues involving race and equality. For any individual who says athletes should only focus on sports, they also seem to be suggesting that movements athletes have previously helped advance should be disregarded as well.
A few athletes themselves have even stated they should stick to their sport, notably professional footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic to LeBron James himself. Ibrahimovic said athletes should stick to “what they do best” and leave politics to politicians. In response, James pointed to the fact that many of the fans who watch sports are the people who face these social issues every day, yet lack a platform to bring awareness or create change.
“I will never shut up about things that are wrong. I preach about my people and I preach about equality, social justice, racism, voter suppression – things that go on in our community.
“Because I was a part of my community at one point and saw the things that were going on, and I know what’s still going on because I have a group of 300-plus kids at my school that are going through the same thing and they need a voice.”
Change and progress is created through continually speaking about issues, through avenues like civil disobedience. By talking about an issue and bringing awareness to it, and talking about it some more, and coming up with concrete solutions and actions to address it. Progress is not made by criticizing those who bring to our attention a less than perfect reality.
If the argument is athletes should stick to their domain, then you must apply that across the board, to everyone in their respective job. Construction workers can only talk about construction, lawyers can only discuss the law, factory workers can only talk machinery. In other words, no one, other than those already in charge, can debate the hurdles we must overcome as a society. This isn’t how the world works. We, every single one of us, are more than our profession. A person has a right to voice their concerns on any issue that is affecting the world they live in.
So, the next time you hear someone complain that an athlete has no right to speak out on social issues, simply ask them, then who does?
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