Take a Seat – The Athlete Activist Is Here to Stay
More athletes are trotting onto the political playing field than ever before — protesting, commenting … running for office?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Jesse Ventura was ahead of his time.
They promise to be quite the bookends for a monthlong span. On March 20, President Donald Trump told national anthem enthusiasts in Louisville, Kentucky, that he was to thank for free agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s current unemployment. “There was an article today,” a mocking Trump told supporters. “It was reported that NFL owners don’t want to pick him up, because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump. Do you believe that?” He can ask his Super Bowl MVP golf buddy Tom Brady the same rhetorical question on April 19 when the New England Patriots visit the White House.
The delight that the commander in chief draws from the current status of a famous peaceful protester is hardly his first sports-related controversy. Although Trump likes to tout his business chops, they failed him as owner of the USFL New Jersey Generals. As president, however, his influence may be more enduring than his long-defunct team. While athletes, like the rest of us, are split on Trump’s politics, they’re taking notes from the master of brand building. Controversy and relatability sell, as does effective use of social media. Today, athletes are speaking out more frequently and, arguably, more effectively than ever before as the sports world becomes a platform for social, cultural and political issues. Soon, it also could become the launching pad for political careers.
“Sports has always been a catalyst for social change and social justice throughout the 20th and into the 21st century,” Michael Smith tells OZY. The former Boston Globe journalist and current co-host of ESPN’s SC6 notes, however, that social media has changed the way athletes engage. The death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in early 2012 at the hands of an Orlando neighborhood-watch volunteer flipped the script. On Twitter, “Trayvon” was mentioned more than 2 million times in the 30 days following his death. Athletes weighed in. LeBron James and 12 other members of Martin’s favorite team, the Miami Heat, uttered no words: A powerful photo posted on Twitter did all the talking.
— LeBron James (@KingJames) March 23, 2012
Since then, athletes increasingly have expressed solidarity with victims of other tragedies. In late 2014, five members of the NFL’s St. Louis Rams walked onto the field with arms raised above their heads as part of the “Hands up, don’t shoot” protest following Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. In July 2016, the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx wore black shirts with the message “Change starts with us; justice and accountability” on the front and the names Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and the crest of the Dallas Police Department on the back. The show of support for the two men killed by police in St. Paul, Minnesota, and in Dallas, respectively, sparked outrage and conversation.
A lot of fans were turned off by the NFL this year. There was no willingness to root for a player with differing beliefs.
Danny Kanell, former NFL quarterback and ESPN radio host
Most fans accepted these silent shows of support, but recent on-field activism has sent the sports world spinning. Kaepernick’s choice to kneel for the national anthem throughout the 2016–17 NFL season was much like Donald Trump’s run for the presidency — divisive and thought-provoking. Patriotic NFL fans burned his jersey. On November 13, following Trump’s election, more players sat for the anthem. According to a survey conducted by Rasmussen Reports, 32 percent of respondents said they were less likely to watch the NFL due to the growing number of protests. As ESPN radio host and former NFL quarterback Danny Kanell puts it, the recent season showed how divided the nation is at the moment. “A lot of fans were turned off by the NFL this year,” says Kanell. “There was no willingness to root for a player with differing beliefs.”
And the intersection of politics and sports promises to expand. At Super Bowl Media Day on January 30, the Atlanta Falcons’ Mohamed Sanu, a Muslim, fielded questions about whether Trump’s original travel ban would prevent his mother in Sierra Leone from traveling to the biggest game of her son’s life. Sanu took the high road, telling OZY, “I just pray that we as a country and the world could just be united as one.”
Two of the NBA’s leading head coaches — the Warriors’ Steve Kerr and the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich — have denounced the president in recent months, with Popovich labeling him a “misogynistic and xenophobic and racist” bully. While many fans bellow the dying war cry of “stick to sports,” Smith tells OZY they’ll just have to get used to it. “We have to get out of this world where sports figures can’t have other opinions,” he says. “Don’t ever tell [Popovich] to ‘stick to basketball.’”
The constant buzz of social media may have indeed pushed sports and politics past a tipping point. Defensive end Chris Long is boycotting the Patriots’ White House visit for political reasons, as are six other players. Another former Boston sports star, pitcher Curt Schilling, whose online bigotry got him fired by ESPN last April, intends to challenge Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren for her senate seat in 2018. In Trump, Schilling may have found his role model for inciting an enthusiastic following.
Is America ready for a World Series MVP as president, a man who’s been blackballed by the Baseball Hall of Fame? Probably not. But perhaps No. 44 will inspire a close friend and confidant to run. President James has a nice ring to it.