I remember when I wanted to be an athlete. Before Brad Pitt took it to Hollywood glitz, I read Moneyball cover to cover and dreamed of someday being centerfielder for the Athletics. I’m not sure what was going on in my head: my hand-eye coordination was atrocious, and my flaccid swing made me an easy out. I was fast, sure, but it’s hard to run to first base when you always strikeout. Needless to say, my baseball dreams were not to last.
It was inevitable. I think almost every kid has, at some point in their childhood, fantasized about being a sports star. They dream of that big moment, of those last gasping, dying seconds in the championship round, with their team down. Maybe it’s on the basketball court, where they’re guarded by their idol, and it’s the last possession the difference between failure and success, anonymity and glory. They palm the ball, dribbling up the court against an imaginary opponent. Then: a stutter step, a quick juke and the shot goes up. “This is the final shot — for the win!” they scream.
Truthfully, most of us never grow up from that. Even as we lose passion for the sports we grew up on or realize our bodies have betrayed our minds, we still keep a small part of our childhood in the form of this perpetual awe of athletes. Maybe it manifests when Usain Bolt glides across the finish line, hardly breaking a sweat, flashing his signature smile as he rolls to another gold. Or maybe it comes up when we see LeBron, trucking past his peers to lay the smackdown on a poor, unsuspecting soul for a championship saving block. Or perhaps you find it all around: The cross country track star, outclassing the rest of the field, who happens to be the golden boy for your school, or the football wide receiver who, yeah, really, he made that catch with one hand.
Do we expect anything more from them, though? Should we expect anything besides highlight reels and garish confetti? Some people might say no, because the sports we watch on TV, the kind that controls the moods of millions, is just entertainment. And the people who say this believe that athletes shouldn’t get paid millions, and that the money spend on them is a waste. A sports star is just a sports star, they say, because really, does sports really matter in the grand scheme of things
Well, no, of course not.
Sports are sports, because even though they might bring us joy and pride in our team, and even though they bring us together even if we disagree politically or religiously, at the end of the day the world moves on without them. I could watch the Red Sox win tonight, but at the end, nothing has changed. The apple still falls from the tree, the country still has a disaster of an election coming and innocent people are being gunned down without prejudice. Sports doesn’t matter.
And then yet — there’s Colin Kaepernick. Megan Rapinoe. Brandon Marshall. Devin McCourty. Jason Lane. Arian Foster. Marcus Peters. Athletes — idols — who have protested the national anthem because of their dissatisfaction with the country and how it has permitted social injustice. The list goes on and on, and I suspect, based on the initial feedback from the NBA and other sports leagues, the list will snowball before the year ends. It’s surprising what a few weeks can do for our national conscience. These athletes meant something to some people before the protests started, but that meaning was only found in statistics and money, wins and losses. Now? They mean something entirely different, and based on your point of view, it can be either terrifying or liberating.
But this isn’t about who is right or wrong, about whether it’s “correct” to protest the national anthem, or whether it’s unpatriotic to speak freely. It isn’t about their character, or ulterior motives; it isn’t about their race, or how much they make. Rather, think about it, and step back: We’re no longer talking about how many tackles they made last week, how many points they scored, or whether their team won or lost. We’re talking about police brutality. We’re talking about what it means to be American. We’re talking about the oppression of minorities, and the coming onslaught of xenophobia. We’re talking about why would athletes, vulnerable to the public opinion, would risk their profile, endorsements, jobs, for a muted protest?
Athletes themselves are expected to be good at their jobs (read: entertain) and stay out of trouble off the field. That’s it. But this belies the influence they hold. They’re amongst the highest profile people in this world; they are celebrities on the periphery, and idols in the middle of our national conscience. We look up to them for their accomplishments, and are swayed by their opinions. When they do something, we notice. So when one stands up for a cause, we listen intently. It’s why these protests have been so enlightening: When people in power ignore a problem, we tend to believe the issue is insignificant. But when they point it out, we look, and then stare. Whoever said sports is trivial is right; whoever said athletes are trivial is wrong.
Whatever one thinks about the protests, it’s clear something has shifted these past few weeks. So it’s in this vein that I encourage more athletes to follow them and protest or speak out on the problems that run rampant in society. And not just on racial oppression, but also the causes they believe in, because those who do raise awareness have done an invaluable service. It tips the conversation of this country, and lends the cause more credibility. It’s also a matter of longevity. Athletes that last the longest in our consciousness are not necessarily those who were the best or most accomplished, but those who fought for their ideas: Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Caitlyn Jenner, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. They fought and clawed for their voice, and it was heard. In today’s fast thinking and diverse world, it could only help to receive a growing body of opinions. But it might not come easy. After all, it takes superhuman speed to sprint like Usain, but it takes a superhero to speak honestly.
William Wang is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Willpower appears alternate Mondays this semester.