What role should sports play in social justice?

Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The ongoing national movement against police violence and systemic racism has touched nearly every sector of American life. The impact has been particularly significant in sports, where athletes, teams and leagues are reexamining where they fit in the larger fight against injustice.

The past several weeks have seen unprecedented changes in the sports world. The NFL’s commissioner admitted the league was wrong for not listening to players about racism amid the controversy sparked by Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest in 2016. NASCAR banned images of the Confederate flag from its events. College football players have called out coaches and universities for perceived racism. Some prominent NBA players have suggested they might sit out the league’s return to play in order to focus on social justice.

Sports have been at the center of social movements throughout modern American history. Black athletes like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Muhammad Ali, whose talent gave them a platform often denied to other members of their race, were some of the most influential voices in the 1960s and ’70s. During the 1980s and ’90s, however, many of the most prominent stars avoided controversy to protect their business interests. “Republicans buy sneakers too,” Michael Jordan famously said in 1990.

Today’s athletes are taking a more active role. Some of the country’s most high-profile athletes have spoken out in favor of Black Lives Matter. Others are leveraging their position to push for systemic change. NBA superstar LeBron James, for example, has started an organization to promote voting rights ahead of the upcoming election.

Why there’s debate

There is, of course, a group that prefers to keep politics entirely out of sports, but polling shows most Americans support athletes’ right to protest. Sports stars have always been influential, but players today have reached a level of global notoriety that would have been unimaginable a few decades ago. With that, some argue, comes a duty to stand up against injustice.

Kaepernick provides an example of both the power athletes have to raise awareness and the risks that come with speaking out. His protest brought intense attention to the issue of police violence, but it also contributed to his ouster from the NFL. History offers several examples of players who have lost their careers after taking controversial stances. That calculus can complicate the decision to speak out, especially for lesser-known players who make far less than stars. The risks are even more significant for unpaid college athletes.

Others argue that the onus to change falls not on athletes but on the leagues that employ them. Most teams have released statements in support of Black Lives Matter, but many of those messages have been derided by critics as empty platitudes. The business of sports is seen by many as a prime example of the inequities in broader society. Players in the biggest leagues may be predominately Black, but most owners and top-level executives are white.

What’s next

The current movement has come during a unique period in which all major U.S. sports have been idle because of the coronavirus pandemic. It remains to be seen whether the resumption of games, if and when that occurs, will temper or possibly escalate activism by players.

Major League Soccer is scheduled to be the first prominent team sport to return, on July 8. The NBA, WNBA and NHL are set to resume play at the end of July, though significant questions remain unanswered about each league’s plan to protect players and staff from the virus.


Staying silent isn’t an option

“As anti-racism protests sweep across the world, sports are finding they can't stay out of politics.” — Ali Walker, Politico

Sports can help keep social justice in the public conversation

“These are not pleasant conversations to have. They feel horrible and uncomfortable, just as they should. They require individuals and organizations to keep talking about racism long beyond the point when people have tired of hearing about it. It won’t be polite. It won’t be easy. But nothing this important ever is.” — Jonathan Liew, Guardian

Social activism isn’t the career killer it once was

“At least this particular moment in time, activism is not going to crush you in the public eye. It’s not only not going to crush you, but it’s going to elevate you to the point where a worldwide shoe brand wants to affiliate themselves with you, and wants to affiliate themselves with the message you’re spreading.” — Ken Schultz, Out Sports

Athletes have unique power to influence public opinion

“As we debate the importance of pro sports in a post-COVID society, we should remember the value of athletes’ voices. They come from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds in our entertainment fields, and unlike other celebrities, can cut through political polarization.” — Alex Reimer, Forbes

Sports can bring a message to viewers who wouldn’t see it otherwise

“There will always be racist sports fans. But if they want to watch their beloved teams, a message on racial injustice and police brutality will be coming in the process that could potentially have an impact on the coldest of hearts.” — Marc J. Spears, Undefeated

College athletes are in a uniquely powerful position right now

“[Programs] have to have a football season or basically everybody loses their jobs because there’s no money. So the football players are looking at this and going, ‘Wait a second, they need us at this point even more than we need them.’” — Sportswriter Andy Staples to Vox

Sitting out of games isn’t the answer

“Racial oppression has existed [and] it’s going to exist after this summer, it’s going to exist next year, it’s going to exist the year after, a year from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now. … You’re always going to have to deal with these things, so that is not an excuse not to show up to work to do your job. You can fight the fight while still showing up to work.” — Stephen A. Smith, ESPN

Teams and leagues must address their own issues to be taken seriously

“The only possible route forward, if these companies really believe that black lives matter and in the notion of racial equality, is through self-reckoning and to do the hard work of change, inclusion, and support.” — Zito Madu, GQ

The era of the apolitical sports superstar is over

“This is an era when the country’s most powerful sports figures have used — and risked — their stature to renounce systemic inequality, raise the public awareness about police misconduct and demand attention for the deaths of black Americans.” — Andrew Beaton and Ben Cohen, Wall Street Journal

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images