By Tamir Moore
Jackie Robinson. Jesse Owens. Jack Johnson. Bill Russell. Arthur Ashe.
What do these notable athletes from the past all share?
They each had to deal with racial injustice and find their way to earn acceptance in the sports community.
These athletes from the past did not have the same access or influence that today’s athletes have to actively express their thoughts about the unjust world they are a part of.
Last May, for example, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was fatally wounded while being pinned at the knee of Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer. This incident caused immediate anger and outrage in the sports community, particularly among athletes of color.
When Floyd’s death began to circulate in the sports world, athletes from across the sports landscape decided to act. Take the case of basketball players Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics and Malcolm Brogdon of the Indiana Pacers. Brown and Brogdon took part in a peaceful protest in Atlanta just days after Floyd’s death.
Brown and Brogdon’s decision to protest through the city of Atlanta was just the tip of the iceberg. As time progressed, more athletes of color also joined the movement for social justice. Obviously, Floyd’s death was the wake-up call that athletes needed to stand up and speak out.
Another athlete contributing to the social injustice movement profoundly is Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul. Paul also serves as the president of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA). He was one of the many people involved in helping the National Basketball Association (NBA) create a 22-team “bubble” that took place over the summer in Orlando, Fla.
I also vividly remember seeing Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo protesting in Milwaukee, weeks after Floyd’s death. Several Bucks players joined Antetokounmpo, including Brook Lopez and Sterling Brown.
In addition to the basketball players’ actions, last June, the National Football League (NFL) posted a one-minute video to its social media channels. Several of the league’s players put themselves in the shoes of African American people killed by police over the years.
The players involved in the video include New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr., and Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.
This video led to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell putting out a video to express the league’s sorrow for not standing with players earlier.
According to NBC News, 70% of the NFL’s players are African American. So, it is not a surprise to see African American football players prominently featured in the video.
Angel Brutus, the assistant athletic director for counseling and sport psychology at Mississippi State University, offered her thoughts about athletes’ role in the social equity movement in an article published on the American Psychological Association’s (APA) website.
“Black Lives Matter has opened up a lot of people’s eyes,” Brutus said. “And athletes are taking the opportunity to identify what their role is and how they might be able to influence the system.”
Brutus’s remarks get straight to the point. Athletes should have every right to voice how they feel without fear of retribution. People often forget that athletes are human beings and should communicate their thoughts and feelings about issues that affect so many in society, including discrimination and police brutality.
It is imperative to point out that some athletes do not dare to speak out against social injustice, unlike some of their fellow athletes.
Nyaka NiiLampti, the vice president of Wellness and Clinical Services for the National Football League, details how athletes determine their voice in an article published by the APA.
“One of the things we love about sports is that it’s a platform for change at a lot of levels, but it’s important to realize that some athletes are passionate about using their platform for change, while others are not comfortable stepping up to share their perspective.”– Nyaka niilampti
Sara Steinman, the director of Wellness, Athletics, & Recreation at DCCC, shared her thoughts about athletes’ roles during this unprecedented time.
“I very much believe that sport is a microcosm of society, and therefore, the racial inequities present in our daily lives are also evident in all of our favorite leagues and on the teams we love to root for,” Steinman said. “While it has been really nice to see leagues beginning to prioritize social justice in sport, this still remains a topic of contention.”
Steinman said that for several decades, sports have wrestled with racism. Steinman also said that there are several examples of how social injustice has played out in the past and present.
“From an historical perspective, dating back to the 1936 Olympics, Hitler attempted to use the games to prove Aryan supremacy, which was ultimately shattered by Jesse Owens, when he won four gold medals,” said Steinman who went on to cite statistics published by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES). “In present day, when we look at the current structure of the NFL, 69.4% of its players are people of color, whereas only 12.5% of head coaching positions are held by people of color.”
DCCC business administration major EJ Bahamonde, 20, also wanted to share some thoughts about social injustice. Bahamonde is a third baseman and pitcher for the DCCC Phantoms baseball team.
“My thoughts on the social injustice movement is that it’s what needs to be done,” Bahamonde said. “Honestly, [racism] should not be something that is going on because I believe everyone is equal no matter what skin color, culture, religion, etc.”
Bahamonde, who grew up in Philadelphia, said that everyone deserves the same amount of equal treatment., but he acknowledges that racial injustice has existed for a long time.
“We should all love each other and have that respect because we are all equal.”– EJ Bahamonde
There is no doubt that the idea of social injustice has solicited a mixed-bag type of reaction among the general public. Some people support what the athletes are doing right now, and others disapprove of these athletes’ unique stances on this issue.
According to a 2020 poll conducted by Seton Hall University, 61 percent of Americans say that athletes have a right to free speech, and it is their decision to speak for social justice. That poll indicates that most Americans feel like athletes should use their platforms to speak out against social injustice.
It feels reassuring to see so many Americans support these athletes in their causes during these uncertain times.
Some critics may question why these athletes are engaging in various protests for social justice. Perhaps these critics believe that athletes’ sole purpose in this world is to entertain their fans. To a certain extent, that is correct.
Athletes should always try to entertain and inspire the people that watch them every day. However, athletes do have an additional social responsibility as well, especially ones of color. The black athlete must be able to give a voice to the voiceless.
I also would say to those same critics that African American athletes have a sizable advantage at their disposal. Since these athletes have a social media presence, they can reach out to more people of all races than a typical African American citizen.
Most importantly, since African Americans have been impacted the most by police brutality, these athletes deserve the right to be an integral part of the movement to achieve justice for all people of color.
In short, athletes should continue to keep social justice at the forefront. This movement is their chance to show everyone that this issue is pertinent and will not go away anytime soon.
The next stage in this movement should be that all sports organize a boycott of endemic proportions. This boycott would consist of athletes walking off the field of play and refusing to play unless our government and criminal justice system recognize that the problem exists and are committed to resolving it.
The more athletes participate in this movement, the more their fans will hopefully understand why the time is now to address social justice concerns.
Contact Tamir Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org