Al Drago / The New York Times

President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized athletes for using their platform to speak up.

November 4, 2020

PICHINI | Activism Belongs in Athletics

Print More

During President Donald Trump’s tumultuous term in office, there has been an enormous increase in activism among athletes. This activism is not new, as athletes such as Muhammad Ali and Tommie Smith previously engaged in prominent displays of protest. 

Activism in the modern era became far more prominent with the decision by then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to take a knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality. Kaepernick’s fateful knee ultimately cost him a job in the NFL as the league subsequently blackballed him, but it did spur more activism.

The following season, more and more NFL players followed Kaepernick’s lead and kneeled during the anthem. The act of kneeling spread across major sports leagues, and activism only ramped up in 2020, especially following the death of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement.  

After the police shooting of another Black man — Jacob Blake — NBA players threatened to boycott games before the league formally halted playoff action for three days. In addition, stoppages occurred in the NHL, MLB, MLS and WNBA. 

Not only are we seeing activism on the national stage, but it’s also taking place on East Hill. Black student-athletes coalesced to organize “Our March — Our Campus,” an event that took place last month and called for systemic change to Cornell athletics. 

This increasing activism represents a positive development. Athletes deserve to have a voice on social issues that are often deeply personal to them. Now, athletes are beginning to exercise their voice in a more forceful manner to better demand change.

Activism by athletes has unfortunately attracted frequent opposition. One of the prevailing beliefs going against activism by athletes states that sports and politics simply “do not mix.” The argument behind this fallacy is that viewers who tune in to watch sporting events do so as an escape from politics. The last thing viewers want is for athletes to make political statements. 

This belief is incredibly flawed as it dehumanizes athletes to the point where they are only used for our entertainment purposes. Fox News host Laura Ingraham best epitomized this belief during an unhinged segment in which she told LeBron James and Kevin Durant to “shut up and dribble” back in February 2018. 

But one only needs to look at who Fox News brings in as commentators to detect the immediate hypocrisy. The network has invited athletic figures such as Curt Schilling and Bob Knight and celebrities like Kid Rock and Chuck Norris to discuss an array of political issues. 

Why does Fox invite figures like this but then tell athletes like James to “shut up and dribble?” Well, the answer lies in political views. If you’re an athlete and you agree with Fox News’ obvious conservative tilt, you are welcomed to express your political views. This logic is applied not just on major news networks, but in the minds of millions of Americans — speak up if I agree with you; if not, then shut up. 

For many young Black athletes, who mainly tend to express progressive views and advocate for racial justice, the goal among the conservative establishment is to silence their voices, hence the personalities like Ingraham who spew hateful rhetoric. 

But no one has been a more vocal figure in criticizing Black athletes than President Donald Trump. Back in 2017, he levied divisive comments against NFL players who opted to take the knee during pregame ceremonies. 

Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired! He’s fired!’” Trump said at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama. 

Since then, he has repeatedly traded jabs with professional sports players. Aside from James and Kaepernick, Trump has also launched feuds with athletes such as Stephen Curry and Megan Rapinoe. 

Detractors may denounce the actual results of the activism. Does it yield any direct benefits or advance the causes that these athletes care about? In an interview with the Boston Globe, New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty expressed doubt about the fruits of activism. 

“If we don’t practice one day and go back to practicing the next day, I don’t know what that really accomplishes,” McCourty said. “I know we could take a whole day off and we could talk about a whole bunch of different things. It just hasn’t mattered.”

What this activism does is raise awareness around these issues. A large portion of the country does not actively keep up with current events. But for those who tune into sporting events while straying away from national news, athletes’ activism draws the viewers’ attention to these important issues. 

Obviously, there is no tangible way to measure the impact that this activism will have on the election. But there is a shift in the sentiment of Americans regarding the activism by athletes. 

Despite Trump’s best efforts to stir up division, he has actually managed to unite the country in terms of its view regarding activism by athletes. When Kaepernick first took the knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, only 20 percent of people polled at the time supported his actions. 

But now, 70 percent of U.S. sports fans support protests by athletes. The widening practice of activism by athletes has led to a gradual acceptance by Americans. Just as all Americans have a right to exercise their right to free speech, athletes do as well, and they should not be confined to the sidelines during these politically turbulent times.