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Athletes Find Voice for Activism on Real-Life Issues July 17, 2016

Standing side by side, their black tuxedos shining against the lights of the ESPY awards show cameras, four of professional basketball’s most famous men delivered a decidedly non-sports related message.

This was Wednesday night, when Carmelo Anthony of the NBA’s Knicks stood with Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and all-world superstar LeBron James, each making an impassioned plea for action by themselves and their fellow professional athletes. Citing recent violent confrontations that resulted in the deaths of two black motorists, by police, and five Dallas police officers at a Texas protest rally, the four NBA players joined a growing chorus of athlete voices looking for change.

“Tonight is a celebration of sports, celebrating our accomplishments and our victories,” Anthony began. “But in this moment of celebration, we asked to start the show tonight this way: the four of us talking to our fellow athletes with the country watching. Because we cannot ignore the realities of the current state of America.

“The events of the past week have put a spotlight on the injustice, distrust and anger that plague so many of us,” he continued. “The system is broken. The problems are not new, the violence is not new, and the racial divide definitely is not new. But the urgency to create change is at an all-time high.”

With societal issues of race and violence seemingly on a daily center stage, reverberations have reached the sports world, pushing us toward a bygone era of athlete as activist. There is a growing 1960s-era vibe wherein sports stars are using their voices to speak out on issues ranging far off the playing fields they occupy, even if we cannot yet know what impact, if any, these voices will have. The Black Lives Matter movement has galvanized professional athletes, particularly those of color and especially in the NBA, WNBA and NFL, which have a high percentage of black athletes, more than any movement in recent history.

Athletes have certainly spoken out before, owning some of the loudest voices of protest at the infancy of the Black Lives Matter movement, when Florida teen Trayvon Martin was killed and James and his then-teammates with the Miami Heat wore hooded sweat shirts in his memory. James wore an “I can’t breathe” T-shirt after Eric Garner died in the custody of the New York City police.

Athletes across the spectrum made public-service announcements for domestic violence prevention and awareness in the wake of the Ray Rice incident. Though openly gay athletes Michael Sam of the NFL and Jason Collins of the NBA brought critics, their inclusion in the pro ranks was largely accepted, led by players such as Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and his vocal support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

In many ways, today’s brand of activism is viewed more skeptically simply because of keystroke confidence, where opinions can be shared through social media in such immediate fashion, with no real interaction with others. Whether that accessibility dilutes the impact remains to be seen.

“I think, historically, sports has been a leader in demonstrating to society, leading society in social change. There’s no greater example than Jackie Robinson,” said Dave Hollander, a professor of sports business at New York University. “But that was the first half and mid-to-late part of the 20th century. That’s when sports was more of a social and cultural forum. From the 1980s to today, the acceleration of sports as a hyper-commercialized forum has actually, regrettably, put sports behind the curve in leading in social issues.”

Hollander didn’t have to name names to make us think of the likes of Michael Jordan, or Tiger Woods, or even Derek Jeter, transcendent athletes and mega-consumer stars in their own right but none inclined to speak out on controversies. And of course, athletes should not be forced or pressured into making public stances they don’t want to.

The interesting question now is whether we are seeing more athletes who do want to speak out. In the wake of the recent deaths by police of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota and the ensuing deadly attack on police officers in Dallas, the voices are growing louder.

Mixed responses

Anthony preceded his ESPY appearance with written missives, both on his personal Instagram page and in a column in The Guardian. Serena Williams spoke after her historic Wimbledon victory about the pain she felt for what was going on at home, putting voice to fears for her black nephews. WNBA players around the nation made gestures, too, with the New York Liberty wearing pregame warm-up T-shirts remembering civilian and police casualties.

Yet while some demonstrations were well-received, others were not. When the Minnesota Lynx players wore T-shirts with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, local off-duty police walked away from their jobs working security. When Isaiah Crowell of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns posted an illustration on Twitter showing a police officer getting his throat slit, the angry backlash was immediate.

Credit to Stephen Loomis, president of Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, whose initial understandable threat to pull officers from Browns games led to him accepting an apology from Crowell, telling the website TMZ, “I’d love to work with Isaiah in the future. How cool would it be if Isaiah and I attended community events together to really make a difference in the city? We are missing opportunities that we should be seizing as law enforcement and athletes in the city.”

These examples show why a separate but concurrent discussion has opened about what athletes should and do consider in making the decision to air their personal opinions. There is a fine line to straddle. Stay quiet, and be criticized for not using a platform. Speak up, and be criticized for driving in the wrong lane.

The public audience can be quite conflicted about how we want our athletes to navigate that line. And with the advent of immediate gratification through social media, anyone on any side of any argument has the means to make a point. Anger and resentment on one side could be inspiration and admiration on the other, and that adds up to a volatile mix.

“Because of social media, everybody, including our players, has a voice and a platform that we have never had before,” said Pat Hanlon, the Giants’ vice president of communications who has witnessed the changing landscape across more than two decades in Giants’ public relations.

“The difference for our players is they are not anonymous names and faces,” Hanlon said. “They have an obligation to themselves to use the platform responsibly. Be responsible. Be accountable. Be aware. Be well-informed. Be committed. Be respectful. If you are all of those things, most people will respect your position even if they don’t agree with you.”

As NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was saying last week, there is nothing wrong with athletes reminding the world they are multidimensional people, and for professionals like longtime sports agent Steve Rosner of Rutherford-based 16W Marketing, that is an important part of the approach.

“Always be who you are” is how Rosner advises clients. “So if you’re a person that is a private person and you prefer to keep your views to yourself because that’s how you’re wired, then continue to do that. If you’re one that’s more of an outspoken individual, then you should do that. And if you are that person, you need to be careful and selective about how you voice your opinion, on anything, especially on sensitive matters like what’s recently occurred in Minnesota, Dallas and Baton Rouge.

“Don’t do it for fame, for fortune,” Rosner continued. “Do it because it’s something you have a burning desire to do. I would say you just have to know the consequences. Nobody is forcing you. You decided to raise your hand.”

For Anthony, and many of the athletes speaking out now, current events demand more hands in the air.

“I don’t want to put it all on athletes,” Anthony wrote in The Guardian. “I believe all people need to rise up and make their voices heard. But I do think that athletes have the biggest reach, especially now with social media and all the people that follow us. We have one of the biggest platforms to speak out, one where people pay attention to what we have to say, whether it’s everyday civilians or those in positions of power. We have that influence. It’s just a matter of if we want to use it or not. Everybody uses it for different reasons. But at a time like this, you have to put aside the politics of business and whether a sponsor or somebody from a company that you represent is going to call you about it. If you’re a human being, this affects everybody.”


Olympics gesture


Anthony is among the hundreds of athletes ready to represent the U.S. at the upcoming Rio Olympics, and with the spirit of Tommie Smith and John Carlos and their raised, gloved fists, with the legacy of Muhammad Ali and his costly stance against the Vietnam War, he has promised to demonstrate in some similar way.

“We all know our history, especially when it comes to sports and activism. We know Ali. We know Jim Brown. We know Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,” he wrote. “But over the years as athletes started making more money, they started thinking: I don’t want people to talk bad about me for talking politics. But this is not really about politics. There’s nothing political about taking a stand and speaking on what you believe in. The teams and the support systems around athletes urge them to stay away from politics, stay away from religion, stay away from this, stay away from that. But at certain times you’ve just got to put all of that aside and be a human being. That time is now.”

Anthony is willing to bridge that thin line. Many other athletes are doing the same.

Said Hollander: “Sports is still one of the best places to magnify a social issue. It’s so different than any other social forum. Sports is like life, but it’s not life. It’s a stage, a play. So it’s still a place where so many eyeballs are and so many people go. I would even say that if Karl Marx said religion is the opiate of the masses, the thing that distracted people from their loathsome life, today it’s sports. It’s the opiate of the masses.

“Look at all the issues — Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, cheating, concussions — then ask people about it and hear what they say about all that stuff, that ‘it’s terrible, awful. Roger Goodell [NFL commissioner], he’s awful.’ Then ask, ‘What are you going to do this Sunday?’ And they’ll say, ‘Watch the game.’ The potential for sports and social change is still greater than any other arena.”

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NEWS - JULY 2016


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