Do Athletes Have A Responsibility to Speak Up?

Introduction

2020 has been a tumultuous year for sports by almost any measure. January brought us the dreadful death of the late, great Kobe Bryant in an unfortunate helicopter incident. This death was a gut punch like no other, especially to the NBA community. Directly following his death, February brought us a global pandemic that ravaged human life, as well as economies around the globe. Even those not directly affected by the virus itself are hurt by it. The coronavirus completely shut down the wide world of sports, rendering us viceless at a time where we need it most.

The most recent incident to befall us in 2020 is the gut-wrenching murder of George Floyd at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin. There has been universal condemnation of all the officers involved, but rest assured, America finds a way to polarize itself. On one hand, left-wingers are concerned with police brutality against African Americans. On the other hand, right-wingers are concerned with the militarization of police. Both sides’ concerns are justified and all things considered, it is safe to say that Americans everywhere were disgusted at the atrocity that took place. 

Tragic as it is, at least this will not have an incidental effect on our cherished sports… or will it? Truth be told, it depends on who you ask.

So that is exactly what I did, I asked! Not only did I contact people from across the political aisle. I went out into the streets of Brooklyn, into the heart of the protests to find out exactly what people thought about the idea of athletes using their platforms to influence change. After having some great conversations with wonderful people on both sides, I would like to share my two favorite arguments (one from each side). 

Why Athletes SHOULD NOT Use Their Platform to Speak Up

1. Do you believe athletes should use their platform to influence change, why?

“It depends on what change they are trying to influence… whether or not they come from a position to speak on the issue… if they are educated or knowledgeable to make a solid point and not just drive the masses and factions of people in a sensationalist direction…. Anything these athletes and celebrities do will be supported and emulated by what is essentially their army… A lot of times today, celebrities and athletes use their influence for political parties and movements in order to gain support for issues that they (a lot of the time) have no business speaking on… In other words, they just blindly radicalize the masses with their unfounded opinions, encouraging people to have strong opinions on issues that they are not truly educated on; just because their idol said it, it must be true.”

 

2. Name a good example of an athlete using their platform to create change.

“An example of an athlete using their platform to create change in a positive way is JJ Watt. He was able to influence a movement and raise money for victims of Hurricane Harvey, using his fanbase and support. He spread a completely positive message and raised money for a gallant cause…. He simply saw an issue in his community and used his influence to gain support and help people less fortunate than him.”

 

3. Name a bad example of an athlete/celebrity using their platform to create change.

“A terrible example of a celebrity using their platform to create change is Cardi B. In 2020 Cardi B, a rapper and former stripper with several sexual assault allegations publicly came out supporting Bernie Sanders for president… What separates these specific actions from typical examples of people just supporting a candidate, is that Cardi B comes from no position to educate the masses on politics, and it was clearly just a sham to gain support for the democratic campaign. What made the issue even worse was that Cardi was invited several times to go on political talk shows, radio stations, and even Instagram lives to support her opinion and have an open conversation about something that is clearly not her specialty.”

 

4. What is your general opinion of those who disagree with you?

“The general opinion of those that disagree with me is that if there is a way to reach an audience to help make a change then it should be done. To that, I say yes, especially if it is a positive change. However, it becomes dangerous when people with a great deal of influence begin ranting about things of which they don’t have the slightest bit of evidence or logical support to back up. Yes, these athletes and celebrities are people as well, and deserve their 1st amendment right to have the freedom to voice their opinion. However, they should not be speaking on issues as if they are experts because then that just leads to a bunch of uneducated people following an unfounded statement that their idols made.”

 

5. On a scale of 1-10, how strongly do you feel about this topic?

“On a scale of 1-10, my opinion on this topic is about a 6-7. I get frustrated when I see celebrities talking about things they don’t understand, and influencing the general public. Especially when it comes to things they have no business speaking on, or things that could be easily debunked or argued against. However, I also believe that all people regardless of social status are entitled to voice their opinion. Uneducated people just shouldn’t be using it to herd sheep.”

Why Athletes SHOULD Use Their Platform to Speak Up

1. Do you believe athletes should use their platform to influence change, why?

“Absolutely. I think that ANYONE with a voice, and a captive audience, should do whatever they can to spread their message of change. Just because someone is an athlete doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a valid opinion. Same goes for musicians, actors, politicians, or anyone else. Your job shouldn’t prevent you from saying what you feel is right. There are school teachers, sanitation workers, artists, accountants, and people in every other industry who are intelligent and have forward-thinking ideas about influencing change. And if you have an audience of millions, it’s even more important. If I had a platform where I had millions of people listening to what I said, I’d make sure that I said something important.”

 

2. Name a good example of an athlete using their platform to create change.

“Colin Kaepernick being the obvious answer, I’ll go in a different direction. (Kaep will be vindicated in history at some point, just like Muhammad Ali was after refusing induction into the US Army as a conscientious objector. Ali was hated by the American people for years until coming back). But preceding Kaep were American Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who in 1968 raised their gloved fists and bowed their heads in silent protest of racial discrimination. This set the stage for powerful, peaceful protest. The image of them on the podium, shoeless, with their fists raised in the air and their heads down, is one of the most important moments in sports history.”

 

3. Name a bad example of an athlete/celebrity using their platform to create change.

“I don’t know about ‘bad examples’, because when people are trying to instigate change, it’s usually for the better, or at least on the side of those who have been silenced and don’t have their own voice. That said, there is a history of racism in American Baseball, I can’t list them all here with such short answers, but pitcher John Rocker definitely comes to mind, after he claimed ‘The biggest thing I don’t like about New York are the foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English. Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people and everything up there. How the hell did they get in this country?’- I’m sure in his mind he was saying the right things, that he thought he was trying to protect ‘America’, but it came across as bigoted, racist, and insensitive.”

 

4. What is your general opinion of those who disagree with you?

“Part of being an American is being free to say what you want without fear of repercussions. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I welcome open discussion and debate. Naturally not everyone in this country thinks the same, especially about sensitive subjects. As long as the person I’m debating with isn’t being insulting or threatening, I’m willing to hear them out. And I don’t need to leave every discussion with a ‘win’. I just hope my point gets across to the people I talk to. Other people have the right to be heard just as well, as long as it doesn’t devolve into racism, bigotry, or harassment.”

 

5. On a scale of 1-10, how strongly do you feel about this topic?

“If you’re asking about *athletes* in general, I’d say an 8 out of 10. EVERYONE has political opinions. And of course, team owners don’t want players making statements on behalf of the team when their beliefs are their own. But I think the American public makes too big of a deal about these things. If 5 guys on a team want to kneel because that’s their belief, then that’s on them. We don’t have to agree with every player’s political opinions, just like I don’t have to agree with an actor’s political opinion to watch one of their movies, or a musician’s political opinion to listen to their records. I feel it is *very* important that these people be allowed to be heard- but the hatred that we have seen over Colin Kaepernick over the past several years was not necessary. Taking a knee is one of the most peaceful ways to protest. He lost his career over it. Now, millions of people across the world are taking a knee in peaceful protest, and at some point in history he will be vindicated.”

My Final Take

My opinion on this matter has fluctuated over the years, but my principles have stood firm. Every athlete who is an American citizen has the freedom to fight for any cause they see fit, provided it does not incite violence against anyone else. Whether or not they should express that opinion based on their knowledge of the subject is irrelevant.

Yes, it can be frustrating to see an athlete express an unintelligible opinion, especially when you disagree. However, it is the burden of the audience to discern the good from the bad, or the right from the wrong. Those who did and did not empathize with Colin Kaepernick both shared the same sentiment, he has the right!

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