By Drew Stevens (@hismindonpaper)
In a period of overall inaction for the larger sports leagues which we ritually follow, individual professional athletes from around the world have readily tapped into their respective platforms to become among the most passionate and recognizable mouthpieces in protest for the progression of social justice.
The ongoing loss of Black lives to police brutality and a system riddled with pitfalls and roadblocks, laid out effectively to protect the long-existing state of affairs, has emboldened a new generation of celebrity protest that is as amplified as any single corner of the current movement for civil rights, or the more specific Black Lives Matter Movement.
In the backdrop of this socially turbulent climate exists a philosophical, and oftentimes polarizing, discussion of whether or not the Black sports figures with whom we most closely align ourselves and rely on to briefly flee the regularly-scheduled program of our own lives should volunteer their voices and join, full-throated, in concert with the rest of us to support the cause.
I was formerly of the mindset that athletes deserve to be given carte blanche in their decision to publicly address issues specifically affecting the communities in which they were raised and, in general, the world at-large. But, time and present-day circumstances have shifted my perspective.
Professional athletes, particularly those who have ascended to iconic stature, inherit a certain measure of responsibility to advocate for the very people with whom they bear resemblance — either by appearance, adolescent consequence or both. And, by virtue of the distinct leverage they wield to tip the scales of public opinion and galvanize the establishment to enact tangible change, they should not only feel empowered but also obliged to do so.
It’s a substantial cross to bear, to be sure, what with endorsement dollars and corporate reputations — or in the much-publicized case of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and less-advertised cases of former NBA guards Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, playing careers — at stake. But at a time when this country’s most vile features have been mercilessly reflected back at itself and in a society where even the wittiest, most physically gifted and intellectually sound among us encounter hurdles en route to a seat at the table, it’s crucial that modern-day athletes persist to ignore the misconceived notion spewed from the mouth of Laura Ingraham toward NBA frontman LeBron James that he, and presumably his brethren-in-sports, should “shut up and dribble.”
In the two years that have passed since the Fox News host’s provocative comments, James has opened the I Promise School in his hometown of Akron, Ohio — an accomplishment he called the most important of his professional career — continued to routinely offer his opinion on controversial topics and, earlier this month, established More Than a Vote, an organization composed of other prominent black athletes and entertainers, that seeks to tackle voter suppression and inspire others to cast ballots in November en lieu of recent racial injustices. James’ former Cleveland Cavaliers teammate and current Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving has become immersed in the movement for change, too.
Irving, who serves as the Vice President of the National Basketball Players Association, helped to spearhead a coalition of players from both the NBA and WNBA in petition of next month’s planned restart in Orlando and the disproportionate number of black coaches and front-office employees in the NBA in comparison to the makeup of its rosters.
Meanwhile, in a sport in which he currently has no black counterpart and is just the seventh such driver in its history, Bubba Wallace courageously called for NASCAR to do an about-face on its long-standing relationship with the Confederate flag. Two days later, NASCAR accepted Wallace’s challenge and banned the display of what is widely-regarded as the symbol of white supremacy from its races.
Wallace, James, Irving, and Kaepernick dared to speak out for what they believed in. So, too, did the social activists and legendary athletes — Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, and Muhammad Ali — before them.
While some may dismiss the involvement of our sports figures in social-political issues as a fad or deem it unnecessary altogether, no one can deny the attention owed to their celebrity and its profound capacity to effect change.
After all, as ESPN “First Take” co-host Max Kellerman bluntly pointed out last week when explaining why sports and entertainment leagues should care about social justice, “these are the black people that white people seem to care about it.”
Drew Stevens is a writer based in Chicago