The last four years have seen an explosion of athletes using the platform available to them in an effort to promote social change.
The year was 2012, the subject was a hunger-striking football player, and the author was Sports Illustrated’s Gary Smith — the best magazine writer in the country.
And for 8,500 words, Smith profiled University of Virginia walk-on Joseph Williams, whose self starvation in the name of unfair labor wages had garnered national attention.
It was a riveting feature, but it didn’t make a statement so much as it asked a question. The title of the piece? Why Don’t More Athletes Take a Stand?
I made sure to point out the date because it is remarkable what has transpired since. Four years after that story printed, the question isn’t “Why don’t more athletes take a stand?” but rather “Which one will take a stand next?”
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Perhaps it’s due to social media, or our nation’s circumstances, or Muhammad Ali’s death inspiring emulators. Whatever the cause, we are witnessing a renaissance of the socially-conscious athlete.
And it goes way beyond Colin Kaepernick.
In 2012, the LeBron James and Dwyane Wade-led Miami Heat wore hoodies in a picture protesting the killing of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin. In 2014, Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose donned an “I can’t breathe” T-shirt in the wake of Eric Garner being choked to death by an NYPD officer. Players from around the NBA would wear the same shirt in subsequent days.
Later that year, several members of the St. Louis Rams made the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture during pregame introductions as a way of protesting the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. And earlier this summer, just after Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were shot, players from the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx wore shirts that read “Change starts with us, justice and accountability” on the front, and “Black Lives Matter” on the back.
The stances haven’t been limited to race relations, either. In September of 2012, former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe released a letter he had written defending Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo’s decision to publicly support same-sex marriage. A Baltimore state assembly delegate had tried to silence Ayanbadejo, which prompted Kluwe’s letter and, quite possibly, cost him his job (he was released after the season).
Additionally, former NBA center Jason Collins came out as gay in 2013, as did NFL draftee Michael Sam in 2014.
You have to remember how difficult all this would have been to forecast when Smith’s profile was published. The American sports realm was just transitioning out of the Tiger Woods era, when money and sponsorships generally trumped political statements or self-sacrifice.
Now, it seems as if the opposite is taking place. Maybe more so than ever, athletes are viewing their platform as a stage they can’t squander.
Nationally, there are figures such as Carmelo Anthony, who called for his fellow athletes “to step up and take charge. Go to your local officials, leaders, congressmen/assemblymen and demand change.” And locally, you’re seeing Seahawks such as Michael Bennett, Jeremy Lane and Doug Baldwin voice their disapproval of the status quo, just like Storm forward Breanna Stewart has when it comes to gender equality.
Can one challenge their arguments? Of course. Rarely is a topic devoid of gray area. But perhaps the best part of this renaissance is that being educated and up-to-date on current events is, well, cool.
I remember Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril talking about the long, sometimes heated, political discussions he and his teammates have in the locker room and thinking “that’s new.” Then a few weeks later, Kaepernick dissents during the national anthem and sparks a polarizing-but-fascinating discussion. I’m not sure an actor, musician or director sitting out the anthem would have had anywhere near the same effect. That’s the power of sport.
It’s important moving forward that all voices are heard — that there remains room for respectful debate. In some ways, teammates disagreeing about a certain issue is more refreshing than them uniting around one.
Regardless, it’s hard to argue that we live in a time when athletes no longer take stands. They’ve helped start a conversation that might not otherwise be had.