ATHLETES, NOW MORE than ever, are demanding to be heard on social-justice issues. Their fans are watching, listening and — yes — engaging in ways never seen, too.
The Backstory: Conversations about race and equality resonate at all levels in sports — not just the big leagues
Many athletes took courageous stances on social causes before our current social-justice movement. Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jim Brown were among the most well-known athlete-activists in the 1960s. The most iconic demonstration of athletes protesting came from Tommie Smith and John Carlos during a medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics, and their fist-raising salute for Black Power remains an indelible image of the Civil Rights era.
“We were the horticulturists,” Carlos told the Telegraph UK recently. “We planted seeds, and we nourished them and watered them and returned them to Earth. These young athletes making these statements, they are the fruit of our labor.”
Colin Kaepernick was the turning point for this generation of athletes. In 2016, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback began kneeling during the national anthem before NFL games to protest racial injustice, stirring impassioned debate throughout a country deeply divided on social and political issues. Kaepernick’s protests effectively cost him his football career; by 2017, he was out of the league.
Four years later, the effects of Kaepernick’s activism can be put into better context, and the simple conclusion is this: It worked. Kaepernick’s protests not only stoked passion and awareness in the public consciousness; they went beyond that within the Black community. According to a study of political behavior among Black Americans, Kaepernick was “a powerful mobilizing force” who directly inspired nearly one-third of Black people polled to donate to a political cause, attend a protest or boycott the NFL. More than half of respondents said Kaepernick inspired them to vote in a local or national election.
That activism reached new heights this week when, for what is believed to be the first time, some professional athletes in the NBA, WNBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer refused to play games the same day, Aug. 26, in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Christopher Towler, an assistant professor of political science at Sacramento State who earned his doctorate at the University of Washington, used data from the Black Voter Project to research Kaepernick’s influence and then co-authored a paper titled “Shut Up and Play: Black Athletes, Protest Politics, and Black Political Action,” published in March.
“I think one of the most important parts about (the research) is, not only is he motivating people to participate; it’s that he’s working within this larger Black Lives Matter movement, and those who support the movement are really, really paying attention to Kaepernick as a national leader (for the movement),” Towler told me in a recent phone interview.
Across virtually all sports this summer, as professional leagues returned to play in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, more athletes are following Kaepernick’s lead amid the national uproar over racial injustice. The research shows how influential athletes can be. Their growing political influence, Towler said, isn’t strictly limited to the Black community; more white athletes and more white coaches are starting to stand up and speak out about racial issues that the white community has ignored for too long, and Towler recognizes the potential ripple effects those added voices could have on social activism, too.
SEATTLE SPORTS STARS Sue Bird, Megan Rapinoe and Russell Wilson each wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt as they hosted ESPN’s annual awards show, The ESPYS, filmed remotely from their Seattle homes in June. The show’s opening segment took on a somber, serious tone as each athlete spoke about the national movement following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
“For centuries, there have been fights for justice and equality in this country, led by Black people,” Rapinoe, the OL Reign and U.S. soccer star, said during the show. “This movement is no different, but as white people, this is the breaking point. This time, we’ve got to have their backs.”
“Trust us: We know that sports are important. It’s why we’re gathered here tonight,” added Bird, the Storm point guard. “But do Black lives matter to you when they’re not throwing touchdowns, grabbing rebounds, serving aces? If that was uncomfortable to hear, good. I used to shy away from moments like this, because it’s convenient to be quiet. To be thought of as safe and polite. Colin Kaepernick never shied away. He knew that discomfort was essential to liberation and that fighting the oppression against Black people is bigger than sports.”
Added Wilson, the Seahawks quarterback: “Our country’s work is not anywhere close to done. We need justice. We need true leadership. We need a change, and we need it now. … As millions of people of all colors protest, I see a world of hurt, pain and despair. But I also see a new generation. A generation that is calling out in desperate need for lasting change.”
OTHER SEAHAWKS have been outspoken on social issues in recent years. Michael Bennett, one of the stars of the Seahawks’ defense during their Super Bowl runs in 2013 and 2014, was one of a handful of NFL players to support Kaepernick and protest during the national anthem. In 2017, Bennett sat on the team bench during the performance of the anthem; before some games, Justin Britt, a white offensive lineman, stood next to Bennett and put his arm on Bennett’s shoulder in a show of solidarity.
After one game, Britt posted a quote from Benjamin Franklin on his Twitter page: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll also has talked publicly about race relations and racial injustices this summer, doing so in a new podcast, “Flying Coach,” with Steve Kerr of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. Carroll and Kerr are among the most accomplished coaches in their respective sports; both are white coaches in leagues comprised predominantly of Black athletes, and both have been lauded in the past for cultivating a locker-room culture of respect and openness.
But even that kind of environment isn’t enough, Kerr acknowledged. “We’ve got to dig even deeper,” he said on the podcast. “We’ve really got to try to understand where our players come from. And how do you as a coach, how do you create a culture that allows that conversation to happen organically? I think that’s the challenge coaches face out there. But it’s critical. Because the more we can understand each other with empathy, with humanity, the better chance we have of creating change.”
In the wake of Floyd’s killing on May 25, Carroll and the Seahawks have had ongoing dialogue about race relations and social injustices during virtual team meetings. Carroll told listeners that those conversations have been “extraordinarily impactful and moving.”
“In our lives, we were aware of things, but yet we didn’t talk about them; we didn’t know how to express our feelings or we just ignored them, and unrightfully so. Now, we can’t do that anymore,” Carroll said.
“I just hope everybody at this time continues to be open to the world around us and realize it’s important to love everybody and care for everybody. They all need our care and love in all directions. It’s calling for a big change, because there’s a lot of people that don’t think that way. … We have to work our way through this with great resolve. We have to do this.”
WHITE ATTITUDES TOWARD racial inequalities have shifted dramatically. In July 2020, 55% of white Americans surveyed in a Washington Post-ABC News poll acknowledged discrimination against Black people, up from 33% in 2012. Further, 54% of white people said they supported Black Lives Matter.
Mariners outfielder Braden Bishop is one white athlete who wants to be part of the positive momentum toward racial equality, and he said he has been having open dialogue with teammates of color this summer. His message to them: “I’m with you. I will be with you. I see you as a Black man, and I’m here for you. And while I’ll never understand directly the pain you feel, when you hurt, I hurt.”
Bishop played at the University of Washington; he was a Law, Societies and Justice major there. He isn’t a star player for the Mariners, but he feels obligated to keep the conversation going publicly. Perhaps more than any local white athlete, he has sparred on social media with those who have pushed back against his support of Black Lives Matter. “Athletes should not just stick to sports. Serve others!” Bishop tweeted on July 23 (@bradenbishop7).
That kind of public support from white teammates can be another significant mobilizing force for political action, Towler suggested.
“It’s not just that they’re speaking up to support their teammates or the people around the league,” Towler told me. “Their voices do make a difference when it comes to the general population and to the fans and to the people around the country and the world that watch them and follow them.”
THE MARINERS OPENED this season with nine Black players on their roster, the most of any team in Major League Baseball. Mariners players and coaches wore Black Lives Matter shirts before the team’s first game of the season in July, and six players raised their fists during the playing of the national anthem to protest racial injustice.
“It means a lot just to be a team with so many African American players and be able to represent that community as well,” Kyle Lewis, a Black rookie outfielder whom the Mariners consider a cornerstone piece to their future, told reporters this summer. “We were able to come together and just show unity with the whole team, too. I appreciate all my teammates and everybody coming together and just showing unity. It really means a lot to everybody in that clubhouse.”
Bishop is encouraged by the current movement for racial equality, and he can sense his Black teammates are encouraged, too. “But at same time,” he told me, “I think they’re tired. I can feel that, and I can sense that in their voice, just speaking out publicly the past month. Getting the responses I’ve gotten (on social media), I’m tired — so I can’t even imagine having to go through that my whole life and fighting that battle.”
Bishop grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area playing football, as well as baseball, on a diverse team with friends of various backgrounds. Learning about their experiences, he said, initially opened his eyes to racial inequalities. One of his goals now is to help make baseball more accessible, and more affordable, to youth athletes of color.
“I don’t know what the solution is,” he said, “but I want to be part of it.”
AS PRO SPORTS leagues returned to play in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic this summer, athletes’ demonstrations for social justice moved to the forefront. Before Major League Soccer’s first game, more than 100 players stood in silence, their right fists raised, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on the neck of George Floyd. Before the Seattle Storm tipped off the WNBA season against the New York Liberty on July 25, players had a 26-second moment of silence to seek justice for Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman killed by police in her Louisville home in March.
The magnitude of the movement trickled down to Tacoma, and to the Lakes High School football team. Dave Miller, who is white, has been Lakes’ coach since 1986, and he said he’s never seen or heard anything like the reaction he felt from players in the wake of Floyd’s killing. Miller had set up a Zoom call and invited his players to join; he wanted to give them an opportunity and a forum to express themselves, to share their stories.
One of things Miller has enjoyed most about coaching at Lakes is working with kids from culturally diverse backgrounds, with many students coming from military families stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. As a coach, he told me, he sees it as his job to find common ground among young athletes, to bring them together for a common purpose as a team.
Love, Miller said, is a word he uses a lot in his program and with his players. “I love you,” he’ll tell them. Some of those teenage boys, when they first join the team, are taken aback at how freely he says that. (“It’s important,” Miller said, “to tell them you believe in them.”) Eventually, and almost always, those players start to say it back to him: “Love you, Coach.”
Miller described feeling shocked and overwhelmed in the days after Floyd was killed. He found his players grappling with their own frustrations and fears in that first Zoom call. What transpired during their conversation, he said, was uplifting and motivating, and helped reinforce his ideals for his program, and why he became a coach in the first place. Several senior leaders on the team had steered the conversation forward, and one of them made a simple yet powerful point that resonated with the coach.
“You know, Coach, you always tell us to love each other, and we try to do that,” Miller recalled the senior leader saying. “Obviously, not every team and every person is going to love each other, but we do need to respect each other. Even if we don’t want to love each other, we have to treat each other with value.”
Professional stars, it seems, aren’t the only athletes discovering their voices for social change. Young athletes are asking to be heard, too, and they’re starting to realize how influential they can be.
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