[For this year’s Super Bowl week series, I wanted to write about some of our great works of sports literature. Leading up to this special Guest Post from an FSU English Studies alum & budding sports journalist!]
[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?
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.
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
“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
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?
Series starts Monday,
PS. What do you
think? Other sports literature or writing you’d highlight?]