by James Viray and Milessa Lowrie
Athlete activists (we call them Athletivists) have been particularly engaged during the last six months. There has been no shortage of events in the news cycle that have garnered the attention of America’s sports stars: from the Presidential election, to the Black Lives Matter movement, to access to bathrooms for transgendered people, to name a few. We’ve also noted that the divisions in our nation highlighted during last year's Presidential elections and into the beginning of this new Administration appear to be reflected in American sports, where the commentary on a given issue can be starkly divergent depending on the source. In an article last week, Newsweek explored the "dueling politics of the NFL and NBA," pointing out the different political cultures of football and basketball: support for President Trump and his policies is more common and culturally accepted in the NFL; whereas, in the NBA, opposition to the new president and his policies is par for the course.
The executive order by President Trump to temporarily ban immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations and halt the country’s refugee program is the latest to garner attention from the sports world. Some of the recent criticism of the ban has emerged from concerns over the impact on individual athletes, including two South Sudanese NBA players whose teams and fans have worried about their ability to travel and return from games played in Canada. There has also been concern that the ban may hurt Los Angeles' bid for the 2024 Olympics if some international athletes are unable to travel (note: the White House has told the U.S. Olympic Committee that they plan to make exceptions for Olympians).
In addition to the practical implications, several athletes have weighed in on the ethical merits of the ban. Olympic fencing medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad, who was the first woman to compete for the United States wearing a headscarf in the Olympics, said on Twitter, “Our diversity makes us strong #NoBanNoWall.” Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, whose father was killed in a terrorist attack in Beirut in 1984, voiced his opposition to the ban during a recent interview warning that “We're really going against the principles of what our country is about and creating fear. If anything we could be breeding anger and terror.” NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. tweeted his family’s refugee story in solidarity with refugees affected by the ban saying, “my fam immigrated from Germany in 1700s escaping religious persecution. America is created by immigrants.”
Meanwhile, some in the sports world have expressed support for the ban. Soccer star Geoff Cameron has said, "Our enemies have stated -- and in Europe they have proven -- they will take advantage of lax immigration procedures for the purposes of staging attacks. A temporary pause on immigration for the purpose of evaluating and improving vetting procedures makes sense.” Tweeting his support, former baseball star Aubrey Huff said he was glad to see a president “follow through with his campaign promises” and criticized protesters of the ban, saying they should get a job.
It shouldn't be surprising that athletes are getting involved, as history has produced many moments where politics has found its way on to the playing field or court. Recall that we recently celebrated the life of boxing legend Muhammed Ali, one of the world’s leading social activists (athlete or not). Nor should it be surprising that athletes would have differing points of view on political issues. They are, after all, just human beings like the rest of us. And, as human beings, we have diverse perspectives that are normally shaped by our personal experiences and by the experiences of those who surround us.
Unfortunately, that can lead to more narrow perspectives as most people surround themselves (in both the real and virtual worlds) with people who are similar to them. The marches in recent weeks are a physical example of this--hundreds or thousands of people united in their support for or opposition to someone or something. Every person in this great country has the right to voice their opinion. Participating in a march can be a very powerful way to do that. While marches or demonstrations can be effective in raising awareness of a problem, it takes more than demonstrating to solve that problem. Groups of people who have the same point-of-view spending hours together rarely produces solutions to complex problems.
Complex issues--like refugee resettlement or immigration--are hardly black and white, seldom have a right answer and a wrong answer. Similarly, the people on one side of the issue are not right or wrong, are certainly not more or less American and their concerns not more or less valid than those on the other side of the issue. Each person's opinion, perspective and concerns are influenced by that person's experiences. And no one's experiences are right or wrong. They just are.
We would all be better served if each of us, before shouting our opinions over social media, would take the time to understand the experiences of those who hold opposing views to our own. This applies even more for professional athletes, who possess an even greater platform (and all of the accompanying responsibilities) to influence public opinion. As NFL great and civil rights activist Jim Brown recently advised athlete activists during an ESPN Oustside the Lines’ podcast, “Work on unity, become likeminded and become effective […] the change that has to take place [...] that’s hard work, and it’s uniting people behind the principles that are applicable to all human beings […] Everybody is not qualified to be out there, and you should become educated before you go.”
At Athletivate, we certainly believe it’s important to raise awareness of societal problems, but we think it's even more useful to bring solutions to those problems. That's why, in the coming weeks, we'll be looking for opportunities to bring professional athletes with different perspectives on the issue of refugee resettlement together with actual refugees and representatives from community organizations and government agencies in a forum where they can each share their experiences with and learn from each other. We don't necessarily expect to come up with a solution, but we expect to be a part of it.