In a 2012 article published in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, I discussed a culture of silence among the current generation of Black male athletes when it comes to speaking on social issues. As I wrote, I was privy to the fact that I was not alone in this critique. In fact, for years, there has been a sense of discontent among prominent Black scholars and writers (e.g., William Rhoden, Harry Edwards, Shaun Powell) regarding the current generation’s failure to use their platform to address injustices in sport and society as a whole. Admittedly, the climate and culture confronted by athletes today is quite different that that faced by Bill Russell, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Muhammad Ali, and other athletes who partook in activist feats decades ago. However, one could argue that there still exist matters of which present-day Black athletes could tackle. For instance, concerning the Darfur genocide leading up to the 2008 Olympics, Kobe Bryant contended that was a job for the politicians and he wanted to concentrate on basketball. Likewise, LeBron James suggested that one should not confuse sports and politics. Both sentiments, I’m sure athletes of the Civil Rights Movement would not agree with nor condone.
Despite these past acts, it appears as if the culture of silence is coming to an end. In recent years, several well-known Black male athletes have addressed social issues (e.g., Trayvon Martin, Donald Sterling). And more recently, the culmination of events concerning Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others is perhaps the most pronounced act of activism of today’s Black male athlete.
Renowned athletes have addressed this matter by either speaking on recent grand jury decisions to not prosecute police officers for their actions toward Black men or employing silent gestures during their games. For example, Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, Jared Cook, Chris Givens and Kenny Britt of the St. Louis Rams employed the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture during pre-game introductions. Reggie Bush and Derrick Rose wore “I can’t breathe” (i.e., Eric Garner’s last words) shirts in warm-ups.
With any type of athlete activism, it is almost certain that there will be members of society who will feel that the acts are unwarranted and that sport should not be utilized as a platform for activist activities. For instance, St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher stated that he separates sports and politics. Moreover, the St. Louis Police Officers Association called for the St. Louis Rams players to be disciplined for their acts. While the players were not disciplined for the actions, the thought of potential reprimand could potentially inhibit future acts. Furthermore, present-day Black male athletes arguably have much more to lose financially compared to their counterparts of yesteryear. An outspoken athlete could be deemed a distraction, losing out on a contract and sponsors in the process. A precarious situation, indeed. However, WHAT IF the athletes coming before them had not spoken out on injustices? Where would the Black male athlete be today? Of course, we’re speaking hypotheticals here, but “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked”, right?
Time will tell as to whether athletes such as LeBron James and others have sparked a shift in how Black athletes address social issues. Having conducting my doctoral dissertation on the social responsibility of this population, I will be interested in seeing if more Black male athletes engage in social activism. In the meantime, I surmise we can all do something with regard to what we perceive as injustices. It wouldn’t be right for me and other academics to call on these guys to possibly sacrifice their careers while we sit back and do nothing. In saying that, (speaking to my fellow academics), let us all use our platforms to educate the future generation of sport managers on injustices in hopes that this leads to improved sport organizations.