December 4, 2014

CHIUSANO | Athletes Can Be Activists Too

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On Sunday, the St. Louis Rams made headlines for more than their 52-0 shellacking of the Raiders. Five Rams players walked out onto the field before the game with their arms raised above their heads in the “hands up, don’t shoot” pose that has swept the nation following the decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson.

The gesture by the players was both lauded and decried in the aftermath, and a New York Times article reported that the St. Louis Police Officers Association said it was “profoundly disappointed” with their actions. In a press conference, St. Louis head coach Jeff Fisher said, “It’s my personal opinion, and I firmly believe, that it’s important that I keep sports and politics separate. I’m a head coach. I’m not a politician, an activist or an expert on societal issues.”

It’s true that Fisher is no political expert. Neither are his players and neither are, seemingly, the millions of college students and young adults across the country who are trying to make their voices heard through peaceful protests and sit-ins. When it comes to social politics, nobody is an expert, and that is why it is both important and productive, I think, to allow everyone to voice their opinions in whatever forum most suits them. And that extends from subtle forms of protest that may go unnoticed to more overt forms when a significant portion of the population is tuned in to watch.

To say that it is unfair for athletes to try to be political activists because they receive so much screen time and media attention is counterintuitive. It’s true that American culture places too much emphasis on the sports and entertainment industries, but that’s just the nature of the beast. It seems backwards to me that we religiously watch football players beat up on one another, but when they take a stance on something actually important, we ignore it or condemn it because they are, after all, “only” athletes.

There is an extensive and important history of athlete activism, dating back to household names like Kareem Abdul Jabar, Bill Walton (who was once arrested for barricading an administration building to protest the Vietnam War), Muhammed Ali and Bill Bradley. Some of that history is starting to resurface; NBA players expressed public outrage at Donald Sterling’s racist statements last year, members of the Miami Heat wore hoodies after Trayvon Martin was murdered and now the St. Louis players have spoken out.

I truly hope that this athlete activism continues and is never squashed. When will NFL players fight back against the racist naming of one of their football teams? When will athletes across all leagues come together to create a truly accepting environment for homosexuals instead of sweeping the topic under the rug and only acknowledging it when a well-known player comes out? A college football player died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound last week after repeatedly complaining about the effect of concussions on his mind. When will NFL players start talking about the crippling effect the game they are paid to play has on their bodies and minds? Athletes have important things to say, and we need to create an open environment for them to speak so issues like these can begin to be resolved.

My brother went to the protests in New York City last night after yet another police officer was not indicted by a grand jury in the death of an unarmed man. When I spoke to my parents on the phone, they said they were worried about my brother getting involved. But I know they were speaking only as protective parents. My dad was tear-gassed himself while protesting the Vietnam War; he knows what it means to stand up for something and to think any differently would be hypocritical.

Just as the opinions of athletes are sometimes brushed aside as unimportant, I think the ideas of young people are equally overlooked. As students we sometimes feel helpless, or even as though expressing our opinions is futile. Maybe it is. Maybe we don’t know anything because at 20 years old we haven’t experienced a hell of a lot. But there is no harm in talking about it, and there is so much to talk about. If any good has come from the incredibly depressing, often demoralizing last few weeks we have experienced in America, it is that people are talking, people are uniting. No voice is too small or insignificant. No voice should ever be silenced.