Should Pro Athletes Speak On Political, Social Issues?
New York Knicks’ Star Carmelo Anthony participated this week in a Los Angeles Town Hall on relations between police and the African-American community and expressed strong opinions. Michael Jordan just donated $2 million to organizations designed to address the shootings of police by civilians and controversial police shootings of citizens. LSU RB Leonard Fournette posed wearing a T-shirt honoring slain Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. LPGA golfer Natalie Gulbis spoke about her admiration for Donald Trump at last week’s Republican National Convention. Tennis champion Serena Williams spoke about the shootings of police and motorists after winning Wimbledon. NBA Stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony made comments at the ESPY’s regarding violence against police and rogue police shootings. A new era of athletic involvement in off-field issues and causes is underway.
Should athletes have the right to speak out on political or social issues? Are there limits to where and when such commentary should take place? Do involved athletes risk the antipathy of fans who disagree? Since fans generally view sports as a respite from the cares and worries of everyday living, is the popularity of sports endangered by being embroiled with such issues? I believe that athletes are also citizens and the benefits of participation in issues and politics to them and the society outweighs the risks. Athletes at the collegiate and professional level have always battled with the isolation and self-absorption that their focus on sports necessitates. They risk being ill-prepared for life after sports. They are role models who can use that profile to model behavior–positive and negative. If the larger society is traumatized by social issues–they can provide an informed and healing voice.
Partisan political campaigns carry a risk for athletes and their images. When he was pushed to back a progressive black Democratic Senatorial candidate in North Carolina against an extremely controversial Republican incumbent, Michael Jordan declined. He defended his caution by stating “Republicans buy sneakers too.” I pushed clients to inform themselves and back candidates if they felt compelled to. My clients spoke for President Reagan, President Bush, and President Obama. The relationships and experiences they built served them well in second career by exposure to a larger world and the skill set necessary to succeed.
Certain social issues like abortion and gay rights can seem to give rise to such heated controversy and are a matter of conscience that they may seem too emotional to tackle. Yet, the public acceptance and support for gay athletes in the NFL and NBA by other athletes defused the issue and created greater tolerance. The millennial generation that athletes are part of has attitudes much more accepting of a diversity of lifestyles and orientations than older citizens.
Athletes have ample opportunities to express their views in interviews, on social media, by demonstrating or attending rallies. The use of game-time settings, stadia and arenas to make a statement is really not necessary. Part of what gives athletes their profile and power is the appeal their sports to a massive audience, not distracted by off-field issues at a game. Where should that line be drawn? The WNBA fined athletes on four teams for wearing “Black Lives Matter” and “Dallas 5” black warm-up shirts. Did that cross the line?
Team sports itself provides an admirable model for how a society struggling with racial division can achieve racial harmony. African-Americans, Latinos, Whites and Asians work harmoniously in everyday contact in team sports. They know each other as real people, not stereotypes. They use the same locker room, bleed together in a game like football, and strive for a larger goal. Familiarity breeds friendships and acceptance. Informed athletes involved and participating in the larger society can play a positive role.