What happens when those we expect to perform decide it’s time to preach?
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has continued to make headlines for his refusal to stand during the playing of the national anthem before games, claiming he will “not show pride in a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Unsurprisingly, his dissent sparked a wave of rebounding opinions, with some criticizing his actions as disrespectful and inappropriate, while others applauded his courage to use his position of power to take a public stance on racial inequality. Regardless of your attitude towards Kaepernick himself, his actions and the reactions that followed his protest shed light on the delicate—often controversial—role athletes play in social movements, and just how easy it can be to turn from ungrudging patriot to ungrateful traitor.
Athletes can offer social movements a handful of assets, most notably the visibility that comes with their involvement. Changes in media and technology consumption, coupled with a growing fascination with the lives of the rich and famous have created an environment where public figures, specifically prominent athletes, wield the unique power to influence social and political change. Their involvement can inspire other influencers to join the movement, thereby expanding both the audience and actors engaged in the social conversation. This was shown following Kaepernick’s initial demonstration, as more than a dozen NFL players joined him in his fight and his team, the San Francisco 49ers, pledged $1 million to two local organizations that focus on the type of racial and social injustices that Kaepernick is protesting. Progress was being made, and people were taking notice.
The flood of news stories that followed Kaepernick’s first protest reflects the unfortunate reality athlete’s face when they decide to insert themselves into social debates. The spotlight they bring to a movement risks overshadowing the issues they intend to address. The motivations behind their actions, their standing and credibility to join the conversation, and the impact it could have on their careers often become the topic of conversation, rather than the critical analysis of the complex problems that need to be addressed. Where and when athletes decide to take a stand is critical to the impact of their message. As they say, timing is everything. Many argue that athletes have ample opportunities to express their views in interviews, through social media, and at events and appearances. When they decide it is necessary to bring their political agendas to the field, this is when it tends to reap the most backlash.
However, one could argue this attention is exactly what these issues need. As athletes begin to wander into the social arena, the line between sport and politics becomes increasingly blurred. By working in a league such as the NFL, which has draped itself in patriotism and branded itself with the American flag, do athletes forfeit their right to adopt a dissenting identity? When they put on that uniform and step on the field, does their athleticism trump their humanity? Unfortunately, in the eyes of many, athletes are identified solely in terms of touchdown passes, goals scored, and games won. When they attempt to break out of the box society has put them in, people begin to feel their worlds of entertainment and reality collide—and many are not happy about it.
Adding to an athlete’s struggle for legitimacy, the visibly advantaged social and economic positions of famous athletes tends to undermine their call for systematic reform, as people question how someone who leads such a privileged life can pretend to know the struggles of the oppressed. How can someone so removed from the issues for which they are advocating possibly understand the underlying causes that experts and activists have been exploring for years? The irony in this, however, is that the individuals who are most impacted by these issues lack the money, power, and access to address their concerns on the national stage. And at the end of the day, athletes do not need to know the intricacies and complex variables involved in the matter at hand. They just need to empower those who do boast this understanding to come to the table. Athletes have the tremendous power to spark conversations, raise awareness to a cause, or incite meaningful solutions to an intolerable injustice. Isn’t it time we allowed them to put this power to good use?
With all this being said, I have come to the modest conclusion that the benefits of blending politics and sport outweigh the risks—for one profound reason: it sparks a discussion. As Hubert Humphrey famously said, “Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent, and debate.” People cannot care about issues they do not know about. By Kaepernick deciding he would sit this one out, he not only put focus on an issue so many Americans struggle with on a daily basis, but he ignited a fire of debate on the current state of American life. Just as we cannot care about issues we do not know about, we cannot solve issues we do not talk about. The more people we can invite to the discussion, the more perspectives we hear, and hopefully, the more solutions we can create. As athletes finally realize the power of their voice and reach for the mic, the best decision we can make as a nation is to pause long enough to hear what they have to say.
So what really happens when those we expect to perform decide it’s time to preach? Simple answer: progress.