Money Smart Athlete Blog

Can athletes remain idle when it comes to social issues?

By Iacovos Iacovides, APC Sports

In the past couple of years or so, there has been a rise in debates regarding the conduct of athletes outside the field. One aspect of that debate is concerned with how charitable or engaged athletes are with their immediate and wider communities, their political beliefs and their willingness to take a stand for what is right – which is more often than not harder than most people would admit to determine. At the same time, the rise of social media has given athletes a platform to advertise themselves, broadcast their philanthropic side and speak out on what matters to them. It seems however, that athletes are increasingly targeted by the public not only when they say something that people disagree with, but also when they don’t say anything at all.

Fighting for social issues is not new in sports. There are several, both iconic and less-known instances where athletes stood for what they believed in. In 2004, Carlos Delgado refused to stand up for “God Bless America” as a protest against the Iraq and Afghanistan war. Tommie Smith —after breaking a world record— and John Carlos did the black power salute when they won gold and bronze respectively in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. All three were booed by the crowd. However, people and more specifically athletes, who chose neither to side nor oppose their fellow athletes were not thrown into the discussion.

Muhammad Ali refused to enlist and fight in Vietnam in protest of the war and because of his religious belief. He was convicted for draft evasion and stripped off his title and fighting license, until the verdict was overturned three years later. Public opinion regarding the aforementioned cases has certainly become more positive in recent years, although, it wasn’t so clear at the time. The reaction to Colin Kaepernick’s decision to take the knee — which also caused him his job — a few years ago was also mixed and yet taking the knee has become standard practice across the pond, in the English Premier League. This brings us to an obvious conclusion. When taking a stand, you rarely know how it will play out in the long run, how it will be received by the public and what the lifespan will be. It is, in short, risky.

That of course should not dissuade athletes from speaking out for what they truly and passionately believe in, but it should dissuade people from speaking out just for the sake of speaking out; when they’re just following the tide. In other words, it’s ok not have an opinion on everything. Whether that is the result of fear, anxiety or uncertainty you can always just take time to think about it thoroughly and in the end not even pick a side at all. That is true for most people, but athletes are not ordinary people. They are in the public gaze and are always asked about their opinions or views on current affairs. With the ability of the public to engage with athletes directly through social media, it is easier to reach them or call them out on something.

Athletes who refused to wear BLM t-shirts or take the knee following the murder of George Floyd were widely criticised for their inaction. In other words, the public perceived their inaction as a statement itself and demanded an explanation. There really isn’t a right approach to this. We live in an era of individuality and choice, and opting for doing or not doing something is well within your rights. However, as public persons, athletes will be either criticised or praised because of it. The most important thing is to remain true to themselves and not jump to any actions due to pressure by others, because in the end they are the ones who might need to answer for something or live with their decision.

At the same time, if we’re being realistic there are other factors that affect such decisions. In 2019, there was a collision between the NBA and China over the Hong Kong protests and Daryl Morey who tweeted in favour of the protests was later basically forced to delete it. There was backlash against Morey’s team and certain NBA stars took to social media to apologize to China! This led to outrage by people from both sides of the political spectrum. On one side you had people accusing the NBA of hypocrisy due to their willingness to criticise Trump, speak in favour of gun control etc but not China.

On the other side, you had people criticising NBA athletes because what they saw is that their activism ends where their wallets enter the fray.  Sometimes athletes are bound by contracts, sponsorships and endorsement deals. Then they might be bound by such deals that their leagues or teams make. In short, such things can become legal and jurisdictional nightmares.

In some cases, doing the right thing is clear – for example George Floyd’s murder – but in others it only becomes apparent after some time has lapsed, and athletes always have to take into account additional factors. At the end of the day, people will criticise you whether you’re for, against, or neutral regarding something.

The short answer to this article’s question is yes. When issues arise that the public demands that athletes take a stance the options are three. You can be for, against or neutral. However, given that nowadays your silence will be interpreted as picking a side in the debate, it should no longer be viewed as a safe option; the option that allows you to steer clear of uncomfortable conversations. That does not in turn imply that you must either be for or against something. The most important thing is to stick with what you believe in because that is the only way you will manage to withstand any negative publicity and to remain comfortable that you followed your gut, your beliefs, your opinion.

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