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Money Smart Athlete Blog

Athletes and social justice in historical perspective

Constantinos Massonos, Contributor

Social justice is an essential building block for the development of a society. It represents the view that every person who is part of a society deserves equal rights, equal opportunities and equal treatment. Its importance was initially expressed in Plato’s seminal work – Politeia (Republic) – which describes an ideal just state and is considered one of the most influential works of philosophy and political theory to date. It is believed that it has been written at around 375 BC.

Since then, people have been fighting for social justice in different times and in different contexts. In modern times, and while huge progress has been made with respect to equality and justice in societies around the world, there are still several people and groups who are still fighting for issues such as racial injustice, gender pay gap and others.

Sport has grown immensely throughout the 20th and 21st century, reaching viewers and fans in all the corners of the world. The power of sport to create positive change, by inspiring and uniting people from different backgrounds, makes it an impressive tool in the hands of decision and policymakers. Athletes through the years, have also used the effective platform provided by sport to take matters in their own hands and initiate social change.

The athlete who broke the most racial barriers during their athletic career is Althea Gibson. She was the first African-American tennis player to compete at the U.S. National Championships in 1950 and at Wimbledon the following year. Through her performances, Gibson proved that African-Americans could compete at the highest level of the sport. She also competed in golf later, which was another sport that had been closed to minorities, and was the first African-American member of the LPGA.

Another tennis star, Arthur Ashe, who is the first black winner of a major men’s singles championship is more known for his social activism. His decision to criticize the South African apartheid racial policy led to denial of permission to play in that country’s open tournament. One of his greatest achievements was that he managed to mobilize his fellow tennis players to show social responsibility and financially support the foundation he created for defeating AIDS, a disease he contracted through blood transfusion.

One of the greatest advocates for social justice and maybe the best boxer of all time Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay), was stripped of the heavyweight title for being a conscientious objector refusing to be drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War and almost sacrificed his athletic career for his beliefs. Until his death in 2016, he remained a vocal advocate for civil rights and other causes.

Present-day athletes keep fighting for social change as well. From Colin Kaepernick taking the knee during the US national anthem, to raise awareness and protest police brutality against black Americans, to Serena Williams openly criticizing tennis tournament organizers for paying uneven competition prizes to men and women athletes. Sport is at the center stage of social change right now and it is expected that it will continue to provide a platform for athletes to create positive change and achieve social justice.

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