For generations, sports stars have enjoyed the ability to use their celebrity for political purposes. Whether they make headlines by helping to break racial stereotypes, like Gold Medalist Jesse Owens at the Olympic Games in Berlin, or utilize athletic ceremonies as a forum for protest, like sprinters Wayne Collett and Vince Mathews did at the 1972 Munich Games, successful athletes occasionally become the symbols of a cause.
Sports have often been a platform for showcasing diversity. When major league baseball teams, and society in general, still maintained policies of segregation, athlete like Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers helped break those barriers. His efforts help to change the minds of the American public almost 20 years before the Civil Rights Movement began gaining their substantial legal victories. A decade before that, track star Jessie Owens discredited crazy Nazi racial theories before an international audience in a highly effective, public way.
While it’s clear that athletes can be an effective spokesman for change simply by competing, some choose to take it further.
During the 1960s, Harry Edwards, a Sociology instructor at San Jose State University and a dedicated Black activist, urged several Black track stars attending the University to draw attention to their political beliefs by staging a boycott of the 1968 Olympic Games. Instead, they staged a protest. As runner Tommie Smith and John Carlos accepted their medals, both men raised a gloved fist in the air as a Black Power salute.
Edwards legacy continues at San Jose State University in California’s “Institute for the Study of Sport, Society, and Social Change“. Most recently, they conducted a “town hall” to discuss this very subject. Athletes like Tommie Smith, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Chris Webber and Jim Brown all sat down to talk about the future of sports activism. The panel included many outspoken athletes who have chosen to express their opinions, rather than fall in line.
Of course, some sports fans find the grandstanding distasteful. American audiences pay hefty ticket prices to attend games, and can feel like props for well-compensated athletic celebrities seeking to publicize their political views on-camera. Perhaps instead of carrying protests into sporting arenas, politically concerned athletes should instead join discussions in specifically civic arenas? If Colin Kaepernick ran for office, he might be able to find a forum more conducive to expressing his views.
It’s also worth considering how the politicizing of sports effects the leagues themselves. Last year, NFL star Colin Kaepernick startled audiences by refusing to stand during the U.S. national anthem. Instead, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback began kneeling to protest the mistreatment of people of color in the United States. It seemed like a play right out of the Dr. Edwards’ social protest play book, and his actions caught on when his teammates started kneeling too. Since then, sports analysts noted a nearly 9% drop in NFL television ratings coupled with a 6% decline in playoff viewers and some critics have begun to wonder whether the “Kaepernick Effect” may account for a stagnation in revenues.
In the end, though, there’s only so much that can be controlled. It’s up to management and the unions to set the rules; and after that, only the players themselves can decide whether they choose to follow them.
[About the author: Phil Oscarson is a sports fan who enjoys access to online sports betting sites.]