By Keenan Harrell, M.A.’21
2020 has been a year like no other. From the COVID-19 pandemic, which took the world over by storm and exposed the severe systemic inequalities that exist in the U.S., to the killings of unarmed African Americans like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor and the civic unrest that has ensued, this year has been a story of immense heartbreak.
Despite such a woeful narrative surrounding this year’s reckoning with racial inequality and social injustice, there’s still opportunity for triumph. From renewed interest in civic engagement, to citizens bonding over shared inequities and unifying to eradicate them, there is promise of a more just, fair and equitable society on the horizon.
In all of this, we’ve seen prominent athletes utilizing their platform through conventional and nonconventional methods to enact meaningful social change. Through activism, athletes and sports organizations are playing a crucial role in the current fight to achieve racial equality, social justice, and systemic change within our country.
Athlete activism is not a new phenomenon. On April 28, 1967, Muhammad Ali, one of the most influential and prolific boxers the world has ever seen, stood proudly in his religious convictions and challenged America’s status quo when he refused induction into the U.S. Army. He did so as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war. Often met with staunch criticism, Ali remained outspoken not only against his opposition to the Vietnam war, but also the oppression of Blacks in America.
Ali was bold. He was fearless. He understood that his position as a high-profile athlete gave him an extremely valuable and elevated platform to raise awareness around topics of injustice and discrimination; issues that he wasn’t just passionate about, but personally affected by. Ali’s legacy is the embodiment, and perhaps, maybe even the blueprint of modern-day athlete activism.
Today, activism through sport is more prominent and perhaps more effective than ever before. Athletes are taking matters into their own hands – utilizing their notoriety and platform to bring to light issues that have plagued our society for far too long, such as racism, vast inconsistencies within our criminal justice system, economic disenfranchisement, police brutality, gender inequality, and more.
It’s these very issues that are being addressed by some of our most prominent athletes and sports teams. Furthermore, it’s not just awareness or attention they’re raising; they’re producing tangible solutions as well. For example, NBA star LeBron James recently launched the More Than A Vote campaign to educate, empower, and mobilize citizens to vote, combat voter suppression and increase civic engagement, especially within black and brown communities. He’s also recruited other prominent athletes such as Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and WNBA star Skylar Diggins to support and advance the campaign.
Another example of athletes using their platform to advocate for social change is the story of Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick, former NFL QB and outspoken champion for racial equality, captured America’s attention when he began to kneel during the national anthem played prior to every NFL game. He did this to bring awareness about systemic oppression, racism, and police brutality endured disproportionately by black and brown communities in the U.S.
Despite sacrificing his professional football career, Kaepernick’s activism has led to significant changes within the NFL and other prominent institutions that are likely to advance the fight against racism and inequality for years to come.
Kaepernick’s protest reignited the national conversation about race relations and police reform in the U.S. While these conversations have illustrated how polarized different groups in America are in addressing these systemic issues, enough support and attention was raised to inspire more athletes and sports organizations to take similar stances as Kaepernick.
Since Kaepernick’s initial protest in 2016, numerous players, leagues, etc., have taken a knee as a form of protest and continue to do so today. Despite being regarded by some as a controversial method of protest, kneeling has become synonymous for speaking out against systemic oppression, inequality and social injustice.
Sports play an extremely unique, yet valuable role in our society. Clearly, sports are more than just entertainment; they’re a reflection of our shared beliefs and represent some of our humanity’s best traits: common purpose, unity, teamwork, and overcoming adversity. Because of this, it’s imperative that we remain open-minded in recognizing athlete activism and/or the platform of sports as a legitimate tool in helping to solve some of our society’s most critical issues.
Athlete activism is here to stay. Not only am I a firm believer that sports will grow as a conduit in catalyzing positive social change, I also believe that they will play an integral role in creating a more equitable and just society for all.
Keenan Harrell is currently pursuing his master’s degree in philanthropic studies. He is the community relations manager for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. See Keenan’s story.