Why activist athletes are needed today more than ever

athlete

(Alexander Schimmeck, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Mary Harvey, CEO, Centre for Sport and Human Rights


  • Activism in sports has a proud history in the US and around the world, and current events are making it more important than ever.
  • Building on this and finding a way forward will require leadership at every level of society – including from high-profile athletes.
  • To make a real difference, however, athletes need to be supported by all actors in sport.

“To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street, and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Those were among the words San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick spoke in August 2016 to explain his views on ongoing racial injustice in the United States, and why he refused to stand for the national anthem before an NFL pre-season game. Kaepernick decided to kneel during subsequent games, too; his actions inspired many, but were heavily criticized as well. There were calls for NFL owners to fire players who followed his lead.

Kaepernick’s protests have rushed back into public consciousness in the aftermath of the brutal actions against George Floyd, the man whose death has become one of the symbols of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and around the world. The stark side-by-side images of Kaepernick ‘taking a knee’ and the police officer who pressed his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck during an arrest in Minneapolis speak volumes. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Floyd’s death has triggered massive public demonstrations throughout the US and around the world, with protesters demanding solutions to systemic police abuse and wider racial and social injustice.

 

Where do we go from here? Can sport help address in real ways the wrongs of the past and present, and help build a better and more just future for all?

Those are big questions with no quick answers. What is clear is that finding a way forward will require principled leadership at all levels of society, including by high profile athletes. Kaepernick’s activism, and the support he has received from other sporting figures, most recently, Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton, is a reminder of the critical roles athletes and other public figures have played over the years, both as symbols of social change and as advocates for needed reforms. It also calls us to remember why freedom of expression is a fundamental right, and why more dialogue and understanding is needed, including on how that right is responsibly exercised in the world of sport.

It is worth recalling the proud tradition of athlete activism in the US. Think of Jackie Robinson’s example of integrating professional baseball, or Billie Jean King pushing for gender equality in tennis. Think of Muhammed Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, which inspired the Black Power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Think also of the roles athletes like Arthur Ashe and Magic Johnson played in de-stigmatizing HIV/AIDS and of the ongoing activism of Kareem Abdul Jabbar, whose writing and leadership have helped shaped public discussions about issues of race and religion. Colin Kaepernick follows in that long tradition.

As Black Lives Matter demonstrations continue to grow, more athletes are now speaking out. Numerous professionals from major professional leagues have taken to the streets to join protestors. NFL players came together to call on the league to condemn racism and admit fault for attempting to silence players. Their voices are clearly making a difference; NFL commissioner Roger Goodell admitted the league was “wrong for not listening” to players earlier and for not encouraging all to speak out and peacefully protest.

The NFL and other sports leagues, including the Olympic movement, are big businesses and their leadership must now take the next steps, working alongside athletes and other stakeholders. They clearly face many challenges, not only about how to return to play safely during the ongoing pandemic, but also how to the ensure respect for fundamental rights, including freedom of expression. Sports leagues have a difficult but critical role to play in supporting athletes who stand up for human rights.

We shouldn’t be surprised that athletes wish to express their identities and beliefs while on and off the playing field. It is time to see athletes who speak up for who they are. But we also recognize that their actions need to be supported by all actors in sport, not just the athletes themselves.

It is the responsibility of all involved in sport to develop strategies that support free expression and assembly just as they must for all other international human rights standards. Steps to intervene should be taken only if views being expressed undermine others’ human rights. Freedom of expression must be exercised in ways that ensure respect for the rights and reputations of others.

There is a great deal of work to be done to help ensure that the voices of athletes and others are heard and respected as we confront this central human rights struggle of our day. We at the Centre for Sport and Human Rights already engage with a broad range of actors in the world of sport, searching for practical solutions to human rights concerns from improving the conditions of workers who build and work at sport venues to protecting the safety and health of child athletes. We know what can be achieved when all involved in sport have a seat at the table in decision-making and when all work together to create the change that is needed.

We have an unprecedented opportunity today to broaden those conversations even further and include even more voices in much needed dialogue and joint action to foster racial and social justice around the world. We’re convinced doing so will not only help sport achieve its highest ideals, but will also contribute to making our world a place that truly respects the inherent dignity and equal rights of all people.

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