These are just recent examples that demonstrate athletes’ ability to impact the social discourse—their influence is not just confined to the field or court, because the world is always watching.
In late 2014, LeBron, Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose all donned ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirts after the Eric Garner tragedy, while Mike Piazza’s legacy will forever be intertwined with the 9/11 attacks after he hit a home run in the following days at the old Shea Stadium. Women soccer stars are vying for progress in their own sport and beyond. Five members of the United States Women’s National Soccer Team, including co-captains Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn, recently filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation for equal pay, a cause that has been picked up inside and outside of the sports world.
Eli Wolff, a former soccer player for Brown University and a Paralympian, conducted a study on the interconnectedness of sports and activism. In the study “Playing and Protesting: Sport as a Vehicle for Social Change,” he and co-author Peter Kaufman summarized the dimensions between sports and activism as "social consciousness, meritocracy, responsible citizenship and interdependence."
But that does not mean that people inside and outside of sports appreciate the interrelation between athletes and activists. A separate study called "Boos, Bans and other Backlash: The Consequences of Being an Activist Athlete" by Kaufman describes the loudest reactions to activism from athletes as "overtly negative." One misstep by an athlete — even when advocating for a praiseworthy cause — could, at the least, distract from the athlete’s message, if not negatively impact his or her playing career. And, remember, it’s that playing career, including the related marketing endorsements, which provides athletes with their valuable platform in the first place.
That phenomena could explain one of the most important parts of Wolff and Kaufmann’s study, regarding the obstacles to fully uniting the worlds of sports and activism: "Many athletes have negative stereotypes of activists and vice-versa; competition is seen as dichotomously pitted against collaboration. Further, activists need athletes to cooperate in activism more than athletes need activists to cooperate in sports, so it is not a perfectly reciprocal, symbiotic, or mutual relationship."
Moreover, there may be cultural differences across teams, leagues, and sports that might impact one’s ability to freely speak out on social causes. Recently, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said in an ESPN interview that he believes NBA players are comfortable speaking out on social issues because of their league’s leadership, which has fostered an environment receptive to activism. In contrast, he says the NFL’s culture does not foster as much activism, noting that some NFL players are “probably worried about repercussions on speaking their mind from the league." Kaepernick's recent actions and his team’s and league’s reactions notwithstanding, Rodger's point regarding the difference in league leadership addressing social issues can be seen in the NFL's handling of domestic violence cases and the NBA's reaction to anti-LGBT legislation.
Whether they are global superstars like LeBron or battling for a rotation spot like Kaepernick, professional athletes have the unique opportunity and superstar power to inspire, act and promote causes for millions of fans and viewers, even accidentally — in Piazza’s case. The age of social media has made sports stars (and their opinions) much more widely available to the public, and athletes have just started to tap into their potential to positively impact local and global issues. Hopefully, these athlete-inspired movements can captivate the nation for more than just a news cycle. With the constant barrage of sports news coming from superstar athletes, these celebrities have eyes on them at all times. Whether it’s raising money for popular causes or awareness to less conspicuous ones, athletes have the power to seriously change their community and their world for the better. And with that can come increased recognition and reputation, contributing to a cycle of athlete-based philanthropy. The more people who are watching, the more people that the athlete can influence.
Athletes have for so long ventured into philanthropic endeavors. However, we can see the impacts they can drive when they step off the sidelines and fully participate in social activism. Muhammed Ali protested the war. Jackie Robinson opposed segregation. Pete Frates is taking on ALS. These names are forever-remembered names. Every athlete has the opportunity to be an activist—an athletivist—and have this type of influence on millions of people, or just someone, somewhere — which can make the world a better place.
The challenge is that the course from athlete to athletivist is crowded with diverse stakeholders, divergent interests and sociopolitical complexities. An athlete can't just stumble down it and expect to reach his or her goal any more than a team can step on to the field without a strategy and expect to win. Drawing attention to an on-the-field or onstage gesture is one thing; stimulating public discourse on an issue is another; and motivating action to make progress is yet another. We'll see in the weeks and months ahead how effective Kaepernick's approach will be.
At Athletivate, we provide athletivists with a game plan—we connect them with their cause, design an advocacy strategy and facilitate partnerships with other organizations and issue leaders to drive real change on the issues. If you're a professional athlete and you want to elevate your world and motivate action for a cause, it’s time to huddle up.
Matthew Brownsword also contributed to this article.