Athletes and activism: Using the social justice platform

In the summer of 2016, the present era of athletes using their platform to speak out about causes important to them took public form when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the playing of the national anthem.

Kaepernick’s approach highlighting police brutality became an open forum not too long after the women of the WNBA launched their social justice platform to bring attention to the same issue.

While his pregame protests were silent and peaceful, the buzz about his actions grew to a deafening roar as other NFL players, coaches, and fans, the media, athletes from other sports and the organizations that they represented, the President, and the country as a whole weighed in on the subject with either their support or rebuke.

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The brutal death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis, Minnesota police officer during this summer sparked over 11,000 American demonstrations about racial inequality from May to September this year and brought Kaepernick’s actions in 2016 back to the forefront.

According to ACLED data collection and analysis, almost 95% of these demonstrations involved peaceful protestors but their voices needed amplification. Athletes from all sports stepped up to the task and spoke out about these tragedies that keep taking place.

Players from the NBA, WNBA, and MLB garnered the most attention around the social justice messaging platform because sports slowly integrated itself back into the public’s eye after a short hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic, the country’s economic collapse, and bitter political polarization that have plagued America since March are all part of the narrative if you had to ask someone to best describe 2020. But for athletes, particularly professional sports figures, there have been trepidation to continue in activities that could either harm them or members of their families.

Many of these players questioned whether a continuation of a season should be played. Players ultimately decided that their voices would resonate more when play resumed and set in motion actions addressing national systemic change.

While current and former athletes across the sports spectrum gave money, time, and their star power to aid their local communities during such difficult times, these men and women also focused their efforts on providing safe and free voting opportunities for American citizens.  Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James and his More Than a Vote platform has been a major player in this arena during the election cycle.

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Respective sports leagues such as the NBA, WNBA, Major League Baseball, NFL, NHL, and Major League Soccer,  are opening up their play space arenas as voting centers on Nov. 3. Many facilities have also been available for voter registration, early voting, and ballot drop-off.

During the recent restart and conclusion of the NBA’s 2019-20 season in a bubble format in Orlando, Florida, players, coaches, referees, and announcers promoted the Black Lives Matter movement as well as other social justice messaging.

We saw it on the back of the jerseys that the NBA and WNBA players were wearing. We saw it painted on the basketball course. It came through in televised advertisements. Voting initiatives were created.

College athletics also got in the push for equality with players advocating for various programs to promote voting and community action.  This age group has historically had the lowest voter percentage numbers. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) will enact a complete shutdown of sports activities, including banning practice on Election Day.

This concept was birthed by the Georgia Tech men’s basketball assistant coach, Eric Reveno, and presented to the NCAA by the Division 1 Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC). SAAC’s involvement in the passage of this new national NCAA policy demonstrates a civic commitment by young adults not seen in several generations.

RISE to Vote is another collegiate athlete program that provides community voter registration and civic education through guest speakers, digital, and physical tools.

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Notre Dame head football coach, Brian Kelly, eloquently describes the program’s focus on their site as, “The RISE to Vote program was a unique opportunity for our players to learn about the importance of being informed. While high profile college student-athletes, they still underestimate the power of their voice toward change in our society and what better way to reinforce this reality than to not only encourage them to act as part of their civic responsibility but also encourage others to become informed and engaged citizens.”

Organizations like this are proving guidance to young student-athletes as they learn the power of their platform, with the hope that there will never be a situation where one athlete has to stand alone in the fight against oppression in any form.

Editor’s note: Feature image was taken during San Jose State University’s Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change launch. (L-R) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Chris Webber, Anquan Boldin, Tommie Smith, and Harry Edwards discuss the influence of sport in effecting positive social change. (January 24, 2017). Photo credit: Jennifer Gonzalez

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