Philanthropy, Professional Athletes

The “Stick to Sports” Debate

Stick to sports. It’s a term that has popped up in the media due to the increase of athlete activism, especially in today’s divisive political climate. The debate over whether athletes have a right to speak their minds at their day job can be uncomfortable. 

Sports serve as an escape for many people. The power of sports to unify people from any country, who speak any language has been proven time and time again. (Democrats and republicans can all talk about sports together at the water cooler.)

But there is another proven theory about sports: it’s a social change driver. Sports trends can create new societal norms and shed light on an issue that otherwise wouldn’t see much attention. 

Athlete Activism Existed Long Before Colin Kaepernick

Think back to Jackie Robinson, the first black player to be signed to a Major League Baseball roster. Or Muhammad Ali, standing up for the anti-war movement in Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement. Olympians Tommie Smith and Dr. John Carlos making a stand at the 1968 Olympic Medal ceremony to support the Civil Rights movement. 

These movements weren’t always popular and certainly those athletes were told many times to “stick to sports” (and probably much worse). They paid heavy prices: Tommie Smith and Dr. John Carlos had their Olympic medals stripped from them. Muhammad Ali was banned from boxing for 3 years in his prime.

But they didn’t fall back and stick to sports, and due in part to their activism, society changed. The Civil Rights Movement succeeded in achieving equal rights under the law for all Americans, regardless of race, religion, sexuality or gender. We still have a ways to go, but it’s a start. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in sports and athletes of all races were slowly accepted in sport’s highest levels. 

Sport is a Platform for Positive Social Change

Sports have always been a platform to shed light on the issues that matter. To say those athletes who have reached the highest levels of their careers should be discouraged from speaking out and using their visibility to support what they believe in goes against the history of sport as a whole.

It’s time for the sports world to embrace itself for what it truly is- a change maker and an industry that moves the needle in society. People will likely always pay attention to sports, primarily because it’s fun, it’s an escape and it’s something that everyone can bond and relate over. 

But some people don’t have the luxury of escaping the issues facing them every day. That’s why some athletes feel compelled to speak out on their behalf. When it comes to social impact, the job of sports should be to promote positive social change that can unify us all, regardless of what side of the aisle you are on. 

Athletes have been speaking out on social issues since sports became a mainstream industry. As society’s calls for change grow louder, we should expect athletes and the world of sports to be a willing microphone. 

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