Done Playing Games: Black Athletes’ Political Activism
By Sebastian Mayer
In the wake of renewed protests surrounding the movement for Black Lives, accompanied by the COVID-19 pandemic, one group of actors assumed a particularly central role: Black professional athletes. What began with individual instances of activism, such as Colin Kaepernick taking a knee in 2016, culminated in an athlete boycott of nearly all American sports in late August 2020. Throughout the past decade, Black athletes increasingly found themselves at the center of the struggle for racial justice. This activism, particularly among professional athletes, quickly triggered controversial reactions. In 2016, roughly half of American sports fans believed that sports and politics should not mix (Thorson & Serazio 2018). Some pundits, especially those on the political right, strongly feel that the “politicization” of sports undermines the unity sports provides. These critics suggest that the mixture of sports and politics is a recent, yet undesirable, development. For instance, Fox News host Laura Ingraham infamously propounded that LeBron James should just “shut up and dribble” after he spoke critically about political developments during an ESPN interview in 2018. Contrary to Ingraham’s comments, history suggests a different narrative: sports has always been politicized, both in the US and around the world.
The relation of sports and politics can be traced back as far as athletic competitions have existed. The ancient Olympic games were deeply intertwined with politics, as were almost every modern Olympics (Allen & Lantinova 2013). Sports, by its very nature, creates political resources and divides others by necessitating conflict (Allison 1986). In the US case in particular, sports was politicized from the beginning of the nation’s founding. The very foundation of politics in America can be described as rooted in sporting culture; the creation of uniquely American sports such as baseball and American football – both modified versions of pre-existing sports in other countries – assisted in forming a unified national identity, distinct from British or European cultural influence (Cohen 2017, Pope 1997). In addition, sports covertly perpetuates traditionally conservative values. Unlike progressive activism, the virtues of a capitalistic meritocracy embedded in sports is widely accepted and perceived as natural (Serazio 2019).
Despite sports’ tendency to lean toward conservative values, Black athletes have long attempted to advocate for racial progress through activism, further portraying the long history of sports and politics’ entanglement. Additionally, it shows that within this intersection, race is another key element, especially in the American context. Dr. Harry Edwards, sociologist and orchestrator of the 1968 Mexico Olympics protest, identifies at least four waves of Black athlete activism in the United States. Initially, Black athletes such as Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, and Jack Johnson provided symbolic victories to the Black community during the Jim Crow era. Their athletic success provided a direct challenge to white supremacy and helped to legitimize Blackness in America. After WWII, a second wave of athletes such as Jackie Robinson, Kenny Washington, and Earl Lloyd broke the color barriers in American professional sports and thereby both foreshadowed as well as contributed to the slow racial desegregation of society that would culminate in the Civil Rights Movement. A third wave of athlete activism took place alongside the Black Power movement during the latter half of the 1960s. To many, the third wave is the most widely remembered one: It brought about Muhammad Ali’s rejection of the Vietnam War, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists on the podium at the 1968 Olympics, Jim Brown hosting the 1967 Cleveland Summit, and Bill Russell boycotting an NBA game, among others. However, many also long referred to this era as the last time professional athletes engaged in political activism.
Indeed, athlete activism largely remained dormant for nearly 50 years after the third wave. This reduction in activism correlated with an exponential growth of revenue in the sports industry through TV money and endorsement deals. A ‘Nike culture’ that promoted becoming a brand over becoming an activist developed, which was most prominently embodied by basketball superstar Michael Jordan. In 1990, Jordan refused to endorse a Democratic political candidate in a North Carolina Senate race over concerns that “Republicans buy sneakers too”, a statement which he now claims to have been a joke. Nevertheless, Jordan and other athletes of his time displayed little interest in political engagement.
However, a noticeable increase in athlete activism occurred over the past few years, triggering a fourth wave of athlete activism. From LeBron James and the Miami Heat team protesting Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012, to St. Louis Rams players walking onto the field with their hands up, to Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem, both to protest police violence against Blacks, athlete activism slowly made its way back into professional sports during the past decade, often with connections to the Black Lives Matter movement. The activism extended to its most visible phase after police killed George Floyd in May 2020 and reached its preliminary peak on August 26, 2020, when the American sports world came to a virtual standstill in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The resurgence of athlete activism and its increased visibility in 2020 did not develop out of thin air. In fact, there are multiple factors that pushed athletes toward renewed political engagement. I want to highlight a few here. For a long time, the aforementioned ‘Nike culture’, made participating in political activism potentially costly – controversial political statements could lead to loss of employment, endorsement money, or other material benefits (Cunningham 2007, Powell 2008). It is telling that Colin Kaepernick, a former starting quarterback in the NFL, remains unsigned. Financial risk factors significantly decreased in 2020 as hundreds of companies and brands joined the public outcry and overwhelming public support for Black Lives Matter. Many of these companies pledged to help fight racial injustice by donating to organizations involved with the cause (whether this is true support or strategic public relations management on the part of brands does not really matter here – the important part is that athletes’ activism is less likely to jeopardize their relationships with these brands). Ironically, Nike even profited from supporting athlete activism by virtue of their 2018 ‘Dream Crazy’ ad featuring Colin Kaepernick.
The Trump presidency might have played a significant role in renewed athlete activism as well. Over the last four years, Donald Trump openly attacked many Black athletes on Twitter and at press conferences. In response to Trump’s criticism, a number of athletes such as LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Colin Kaepernick began to push back against his remarks. The political climate Trump’s administration produced and the threat it posed to many people of color likely served as a catalyst for some Black athletes’ sense of civic responsibility and social consciousness, leading to more political activism.
In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic which accompanied the renewed Black Lives Matter protests (and has disproportionally affected communities of color) created a situation in which professional sports came to a standstill. Because no games were played for a couple of months, there were few sports-related stories to distract from athletes speaking out on social justice issues. Athletes did no longer just ‘stick to sports’ because there were simply none to stick to. By the time professional sports leagues started again, athletes had already spoken out in such numbers that the leagues could no longer ignore their activism.
This resurgence of athletes’ political engagement is more than just window dressing. Athlete activism can have tangible, real-world consequences for politics and racial justice. Despite some commentators trying to strip athletes of their right to engage politically, athletes are elite political actors. The mass public tends to follow elite opinion and elites can sway public opinion by promoting certain policies (Lenz 2012, Zaller 1992). Celebrities constitute a distinct group of the ‘power elite’ (Mills 1956). Their political impact intensified in recent decades because political authority is increasingly delegated to private, elite actors, which puts celebrities in a unique position to mobilize their resources and engage in politics (Majic et al. 2020). Athletes, as a sub-group of celebrities, naturally hold an elite position in society due to their athletic abilities and their public standing. Furthermore, athletes’ celebrity status allows them to play a notable role in swaying people’s attitudes and creating political change. Multiple recent political developments offer some examples.
Following Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality during the national anthem, many criticized his behavior as disrespectful, unpatriotic, and hypocritical. One popular argument posits that he is free to protest on his own time, but not while he is “at work” and not while the anthem is playing. As an NFL player, another argument goes, Kaepernick does not encounter any of the grievances he discusses, nor does his protest result in any real change. Nevertheless, his actions in fact seem to have made a difference. The findings of a study on Black voters suggest that Kaepernick’s activism encouraged a substantial amount of them to engage politically (by signing a petition, demonstrating, contacting representatives, or donating to political campaigns) and inspired them to vote in a local, state, or national election. Additionally, the study notes that Black athletes potentially connect with less-engaged voters that politicians fail to mobilize. The significance of increasing voter turnout and political engagement among Black communities, which historically have been, and continue to be, the main targets of voter suppression efforts, cannot be overstated.
Similarly, NBA players, led by LeBron James and his ‘More Than A Vote’ organization, successfully turned a majority of NBA arenas and practice facilities (as well as some NFL venues), many of which are located in underserved areas, into voting locations for the 2020 presidential election. Given the close outcome of the election, providing additional polling places in urban areas and thereby making access to the ballot easier, likely had an impact on the election results. Joe Biden won the swing states of Georgia, Michigan, and Arizona largely due to his performance in the urban centers of Atlanta, Detroit, and Phoenix. In each of these locations, NBA teams converted their facilities into polling places. It is hard to tell just how much of an impact providing more polling locations exactly had on the outcome of the election, but preliminary evidence suggests that it might have played a crucial role in swinging these states in Biden’s favor.
Lastly, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), and especially the players of the Atlanta Dream, have contributed to the latest political development in the US: the Democrats’ win in Georgia’s Senate run-off elections on January 5, 2021. Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler, who was defeated in the run-off by Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock, is a co-owner of the Dream, Atlanta’s WNBA team. In July 2020, Loeffler openly criticized the WNBA’s embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement, calling the movement “misaligned with the values and goals of the WNBA” and accusing it of “promoting violence” in a letter to the WNBA’s commissioner. After initial demands by players for Loeffler to retract her statement went unanswered, teams around the league (including the Dream) began wearing ‘Vote Warnock’ t-shirts before nationally televised games in August. Polling data shows that August was also the turning point for Warnock’s campaign. Certainly, other factors contributed to Warnock’s rise and consequent success as well, culminating in his win on January 5, 2021. This notwithstanding, the WNBA’s role in flipping the Senate blue was immense. Even Warnock himself acknowledged the players’ activism as the “turning point” of his campaign.
Critically, the WNBA’s role in Warnock’s win finally gives Black female athletes some long-overdue recognition. Black female athletes have long been at the forefront of activism in sports, but have received little attention, particularly during the first three waves of athlete activism. The WNBA has engaged in social activism for years. Althea Gibson broke tennis’ color barriers in the 1950s. After winning three Olympic track and field gold medals in 1960, Wilma Rudolph threatened to boycott her homecoming parade because it was segregated. Serena Williams has been an advocate for gender and racial equality for her entire career. Naomi Osaka raised awareness by wearing masks with seven different names printed on them on her journey to win the US Open in 2020 before penning a call-to-action directed at all Black athletes. These represent only a fraction of instances of Black female athlete activism. One can only hope that the recent laudation of the WNBA’s political efforts leads to more recognition for Black female athletes going forward.
As history demonstrates, sports, politics, and race in America have always been closely intertwined. Likewise, there is a long tradition of Black athletes using their platform to advance social justice causes. The recent surge of athlete activism continues this dynamic. Their advocacy can have substantial impacts on public discourse, can extend to concrete measures in the fight for racial justice, and can influence politics more generally. Athletes are not ‘just’ athletes. To define athletes by their profession alone ignores the agency and influence they possess as political actors. The time of ‘sticking to sports’ is surely over. The public approves of athlete activism much more than it did just four years ago, showing that persistence, like the one Colin Kaepernick displayed, can sway the public more in athletes’ favor. The latest wave of athlete activism might very well be here to stay.
About the Author:
Sebastian Mayer is a doctoral student in Political Science at the University of Washington in Seattle. His dissertation analyzes how athlete activism influences public opinion and political engagement. His broader research interests include the various intersections of sports and politics, race & ethnicity politics, and reactionary far-right politics. He received a B.A. in American Studies from the HCA and an M.A. in Political Science from the University of Washington. You can hear more from him in this German public radio feature, or contact him via email.
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Header Image by Michal Jarmoluk via Pixabay.
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