For the past several months, and especially this past week, the country has been focused on a town called Ferguson, Missouri and issues of police violence against African Americans and racial tensions in general. As I am sure you are well aware, on August 9, 2014, Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson, shot and killed unarmed teen Michael Brown. Months after the shooting and after a questionable grand jury proceeding, it was determined that Officer Wilson would not stand trial for his actions. The decision to withhold indictment sparked riots and peaceful protests in Ferguson and protests and signs of solidarity across the country and the world. As is the case with many polarizing issues, people have taken to social media to share their thoughts and feelings on the incident and athletes have been no different. Serena Williams, LeBron James, Steve Nash and a host of others tweeted their shock, disappointment, compassion and words of encouragement. Most recently, members of the St. Louis Rams showed their support by making their pre-game entrance with their hands up in furtherance of the #HandsUpDontShoot campaign that has sprung up as a result of Mr. Brown’s untimely and unfortunate death. It should be no surprise that athletes have decided to use their voices to speak out about issues that concern society, after all there is a long history of athlete-activists, athletes who use their platform to advocate for change in the greater society.
Names like Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Jackie Robinson all immediately come to mind when talking about athlete-activists. These men, and others like them, used their voices, their fame and their fortunes to take stances against injustice. The saw it as their responsibility as public figures to get involved with advocating and agitating for the changes they wanted to see in society. As I look at the athlete-activists of yesteryear, however, I can’t help but recognize that they stand in stark contrast to the athletes of today. While today’s athletes may take to the internet when a major incident like the one in Ferguson occurs, overall there seems to be very few athletes who are recognized as much for their activism as they are for their athletic talents.
There are probably a number of reasons for this shift in the role of the professional athlete. For one, the political and social climates have changed since the era when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in support of the Black Power movement. While racism, sexism, classism, poverty, hunger and war all still exist; the overall environment, the tension (outside of Ferguson-like incidents) is one of relative calm. The sense of urgency for change has dissipated giving the false illusion that we live in a harmonious society. Another force at play seems to be money. The earning potential of professional athletes has grown exponentially since Bill Russell and Arthur Ashe played their respective sports. That money comes of course from salaries and sponsorship and endorsement deals. Those lucrative contracts come with caveats about how teams, leagues and corporate sponsors expect their athletes to conduct themselves on and off the field. In efforts to maintain images that comport with the terms of their contracts, perhaps athletes have chosen the paths of least resistance, focusing on their respective sports and various forms of charitable but not provocative outreach. Yet another issue at play could be longevity. Athletes today seem to be more keenly aware of the brevity of the lifespan of a professional athlete. Many reach their peaks and enjoy lives as professional athletes for but a few years. As such, many wisely choose to focus solely on their careers and hold off on other endeavors until after retirement. I believe that combination of these three forces, and perhaps others, have kept athletes in a relatively peaceful, neutral position in the world of political and social activism.
Individuals may or may not understand the role of the athlete to include activism, but there certainly has been and continues to be a space for those who chose to champion society’s great causes. While I have used a great deal of this post to mention male athlete-activists, let’s not forget that this is GladiatHers…a site dedicated to women and women in sports. Just as male athletes have take public stands for social justice, so have female athletes. Female athletes have a rich history of advocating for equality and fairness throughout society. Let’s take a brief look at some of the women who have used and continue to use their status as professional, popular athletes to advocate for change.
Born in 1913, Alice Marble was a world number one tennis player. She won 18 Grand Slam championship titles from 1936 to 1940 in singles, doubles and mixed doubles and led a remarkable life off of the court. After overcoming rape, a miscarriage, the deaths of close family members and an attempted suicide, Marble found the energy to advocate for those who had been marginalized in the American society and abroad. In 1945, Marble agreed to serve as a spy for the U.S. government. In an effort to bring to justice the Nazi regime and its sympathizers, Marble spied on Hans Steinmetz, a Nazi sympathizer and art thief. Her efforts earned her gunshot wound to the back, but more importantly helped to convict Nazi’s who would later be tried at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. Her advocacy did not stop there. In 1950, Marble wrote an open letter to World Tennis magazine criticizing the United States Lawn Tennis Association for its refusal to let African American players participate in its events. Specifically, Marble argued that Althea Gibson should be allowed to compete against the best and brightest tennis players in the country regardless of her skin color. In that same year, Gibson became the first African-American player to play in a Grand Slam. Marbel’s contributions to society helped to ensure that justice was had across the globe.
Born in Clarksville, TN in 1940, Wilma Rudolph’s own body was her first obstacle. Despite not having access to local, all-white hospitals she successfully battled polio and scarlet fever before she found her true calling in track and field. In 1960, Rudolph sprinted her way to gold medals in the 100m, 200m, and 4x100m races making her the first American woman to earn three gold medals in one Olympics. While her talents gained her fame as the Fastest Woman in the World, she and other African-Americans faced constant and pervasive discrimination in the United States. Rudolph refused to endure such discrimination in silence. Upon returning home from her post-Olympic tour, Rudolph refused to participate in a homecoming parade in her honor until the even was integrated. The city of Clarksville accommodated her demand, making her parade the first fully integrated event in the municipality’s history. Rudolph’s efforts didn’t stop there. She continued to participate in protests until Clarksville’s segregation laws were abolished. Her efforts helped to ensure that generations after her got the privilege to exist in an integrated, diverse society.
Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King is a former world number one tennis player. While she undoubtedly left her mark as one of the greatest tennis players of all time, winning a total of 39 Grand Slam titles, perhaps King’s most enduring legacy will be one for equality for female athletes. She thrust herself into the spotlight as an advocate for sexual equality when in 1973 she played in the historic Battle of the Sexes. It was a match that pitted her against chauvinist Bobby Riggs who at the age of 59 said that he could beat the best female tennis players currently on tour. King rose to the occasion beating Riggs in three sets, earning her $100,000 (the highest ever yearly winnings for a female tennis player at the time) in the process. King didn’t stop there with her efforts to place women on equal footing in sports. That same year she founded the Women’s Tennis Association in an effort to unionize female professional tennis players and fight for equality on the professional and amateur circuits. King also went on to found the Women’s Sports Foundation to advance women’s rights and issues in sports. At the ripe age 71, King continues to champion sexual equality by advocating for equal pay for male and female tennis players.
Brittney Griner is one of the most recognizable faces in women’s basketball and sports in general. Standing 6 feet 8 inches, Griner’s dominance on the basketball court is without question. She was the first NCAA player to ever score 2,000 points and have 500 blocks. Though she has yet to reach her height of athletic achievement, Griner has established herself as an athlete-activist. Since coming out as a lesbian in 2013, Griner has made it her mission to advocate for LGBT rights and to put an end to bullying. Griner supports equality among the sexes (and humanity in general) and has taken a stance for such through her tryout with the NBA Mavericks and a deal with Nike that would make her Nike’s first openly-gay athlete and allow her to be the face of a line of unisex clothing for the brand. As Griner’s dominance on the basketball court continues to manifest itself, there is no doubt that her dedication to society as a whole will do the same.
I think it would be wonderful to see more professional athletes fervently take stances on issues that are important to them as these ladies have done. However, I think it may also be unreasonable to ask individuals who give so much of themselves to their crafts and their fans to divert what little energy they have left to causes that they may not be comfortable fighting, so we should truly be grateful for those who do, no matter the scale. While putting a celebrity face on issues can be helpful to a cause, significant weight shouldn’t be placed on athletes to champion social and political causes. In actuality, society shouldn’t need the small group of professional athletes to champion change. There are millions of capable people whose voices should cry out for change. There are more than enough people in our society to improve upon the way of life for the underserved and underrepresented. My hope is that in honor of Michael Brown and the countless others who have lost their lives to injustice and in honor of the athletes who dedicated (and continue to dedicate) precious time to worthy causes, more people would take a stance and act on issues that are meaningful to them and be the change that they would like to see.