The Line Between Athleticism and Activism

by Jess Ferguson
April 15th, 2021

About 34.5 percent of Americans report that they watch sports less now as a result of the associated sociopolitical messages, a YouGov/Yahoo News Poll from March found.

Within the past few years, many athletes and teams have shifted their platform to speak out on relevant social issues. For instance, former quarterback Colin Kaepernick popularized kneeling during the national anthem to protest for racial justice. Members of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, such as Megan Rapinoe, have spoken out on LGBTQ+ rights and the gender wage gap. The NBA created new jerseys last summer with Black Lives Matter slogans, put “Black Lives Matter” on the court, and allowed players to kneel.

However, some people believe that it’s not athletes’ place to comment on these issues, and they should stick instead to their own job. Swedish soccer player Zlatan Ibrahimovic stated that LeBron James should “stick to sports” and said that if athletes want to speak on political matters, they should be politicians. A Fox News anchor also told James to “shut up and dribble” instead of talking about social issues. She went on to say that she didn’t want political input from “someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball.”

Despite this backlash, there have also been plenty of positive comments, praising these individuals or leagues for using their platforms responsibly. A 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that 62% of Americans find it “very or somewhat acceptable” for athletes to speak out about social issues.

Many of these athletes are members of marginalized communities and are therefore directly affected by issues of racism, police brutality, gender inequality, and other topics, so it only makes sense that they would feel passionate about it. Furthermore, as discussions of accountability and using your platforms for good have come to a head in the past year, it feels irresponsible for prominent figures like James, Dwayne Wade, and Serena Williams to not speak out when they see injustices occurring.

These athletes wield significant power, which can be used effectively to draw people’s attention to certain issues they may have been neglecting. It may not mean much if you see a random person online talking about the wage gap, but when one of your favorite players from the U.S. Women’s National Team says something, it could carry a greater weight and prompt you to do some research on the issue.

There is often a reason we like these players, beyond just their athletic abilities. Perhaps their backstory is inspiring, they grew up in the same city as you, they have a great sense of humor—or they share the same values as you do. Just as a player’s personality may draw us to them, their stance on social issues can have a similar impact. We shouldn’t expect these people to be mindlessly focused only on their sport, because that is only one aspect of their life, just as our school or career does not comprise our entire identity.

As these discussions become more deeply embedded within our society, we should expect to see more and more prominent figures—athletes, musicians, actors—speaking out on often contentious social topics plaguing the world. Instead of minimizing these athletes’ comments as uninformed or unnecessary, consider the positive impacts these figures may be having on the world.