Should Athletes Be Involved in Politics

This year, as the Black Lives Matter movement and the 2020 Presidential Election intertwined with professional sports, many fans questioned why athletes spend so much time advocating for causes so separate from their crafts.

This year, as the Black Lives Matter movement and the 2020 Presidential Election intertwined with professional sports, many fans questioned why athletes spend so much time advocating for causes so separate from their crafts. They wondered why politics couldn’t be kept out of sports, like they supposedly were in past decades. They argued that pro-athletes, paid astonishing sums of money to run around, transporting balls with their feet or their hands, have no place meddling in politics.

Some of these sentiments are understandable—it’s easy to dismiss professional sports as inessential entertainment. After all, watching people execute complex strategies to move a round object into a designated area can seem frivolous in contrast to political debates. However, sports are deeply connected to the fabric of humanity—they allow us to experience the visceral rush of competition and movement in an organized way. Sports are also a sort of universal language that, at its best, bridges people together regardless of race or language or socioeconomic status. Sports’ universality makes it very effective for creating social change, and athletes are justified in using their craft to spark political reform, just as any artist would.

Politics in sports aren’t a recent development. Long before Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem to protest against police brutality, Jackie Robinson was a key figure in desegregation. Robinson’s very presence in Major League Baseball in the 1940s was a controversial action, and his playing alongside white players predated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by a couple decades. In the 1970s, tennis player Billie Jean King advocated for gender equality. She lobbied for equal recognition and monetary prizes for women, and she arguably spearheaded the development of professional women’s tennis. To this day, at 76 years old, King continues to advocate her stance.

Sports and politics have long been interwoven, and the insistence on their separation tends to stem from double standards and racial discrimination, not any actual principle related to the necessity of separating sports and politics. When National Basketball Association (NBA) players LeBron James and Kevin Durant voiced negative opinions on Donald Trump, Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham told them to “shut up and dribble,” claiming that they got “paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball.” However, when National Football League (NFL) quarterback Drew Brees criticized kneeling during the national anthem, she defended him, claiming, “He’s allowed to have an opinion.” Brees definitely has a right to voice his opinion, but so do James and Durant. Society’s love of sports have given athletes a platform on which they’re entitled to exercise free speech, especially as it can allow athletes to do a lot of good in their community, fostering social acceptance.

For instance, sports can increase viewers’ exposure to people from different backgrounds and foreign ideas. Star soccer forward Mohammed Salah, an Egyptian winger, contributed to the reduction of Islamophobia and hate crimes in Liverpool, England, according to a Stanford University study. Before Salah’s signing, Islamophobia had been steadily increasing. In a 2015 YouGov survey, 60 percent of the public responded that Islam clashed with British values. Researchers used police data in the area, a survey of 8,000 self-identified Liverpool FC supporters, and over 15 million tweets from soccer fans to determine that hate crimes dropped by 19 percent and anti-Muslim comments online by 5 percent since Salah’s signing with the club in 2017. Through watching Salah’s interviews, games, and social media feed, viewers could understand Salah’s faith better. "Viewers see what a Muslim prayer looks like, perhaps for the first time, when Salah scores,” wrote the researchers. Salah has also used his platform to advocate for gender equality across the Middle East. If we repress athletes’ voices, we limit our capacity for positive societal change. Cases like Salah surely demonstrate why athletes deserve the space and time to discuss socio-political issues.

Through the meaning we assign them, sports can be more than just games. Not only can they be vehicles for change and advocacy, athletes, while larger than life figurines, are human beings who have the basic right to amalgamate politics into his or her craft like any other citizen. The universality and popularity of sports means that when athletes speak, many people listen, giving rise to voices usually underrepresented in society and politics.

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