The challenges when lesser known athletes speak out on societal issues

By Jake Meister
Medill Reports

Athletes are bringing candid and influential voices to social concerns as barriers denying them the opportunity to speak out vanish.

Within the past five years, players from multiple sports in addition to the big four (men’s basketball & hockey, football and baseball) are more willing to voice their stands on gender equality, movements including Black Lives Matter and police brutality.

The U.S. women’s national soccer team filed a class-action lawsuit in pursuit of earning pay equal to their male counterparts last year and players in the WNBA protested in multiple demonstrations in support of Black Lives Matter in 2016.

Winning games and titles—such as Northwestern women’s basketball did by earning the Big 10 regular season championship recently—plays a large role in giving these athletes confidence that they do have an influence in society outside of the gym.

“When people see you winning, they want to come see what everything is about,” said NU’s first-team All-Big Ten guard Lindsey Pulliam. “It means a lot to us.”

In addition, it also becomes the responsibility of the teams to help share their athletes’ and coaches’ voices through a variety of media, coaches contend. But that brings up an issue in itself. If the organization does not want to immerse in that discourse, they are not forced to. Their content on social media platforms or through press releases may or may not represent the thoughts of its players and coaches.

“That is not in my control,” said Chicago Fire head coach Raphaël Wicky. “That’s the club.”

A screenshot of Rapinoe retweeting a comment of Adidas announcing it will pay the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup winning team (which happened to be the U.S.) a performance bonus equal to their male counterparts. (@mPinoe/Twitter)

Of course, athletes or coaches can take to their own social media as a means of sharing their support for a cause, which many have done in the past such as soccer superstar Megan Rapinoe.

Despite these positive steps forward, athletes of less prominent sports still lack the exposure stars such as LeBron James or other athletes receive.

In 2014 James and other NBA players sported black shirts prior to the start of games in response to the death of Eric Garner in New York. The shirts read, “I can’t breathe,” echoing Garner’s final words before he died at the hands of a New York City police officer putting him into a chokehold. From the Washington Post to Sports Illustrated, the chances of finding a publication across the country that did not cover the protests was quite low. Of course, with this extended coverage, James and other NBA players received an expanded audience compared to Manhattanville College women’s basketball player Toni Smith’s protest of the national anthem in 2003.

In addition to the continuous coverage he receives on television and print media, James dominates other professional athletes with his social media following. (Data from athletes’ social media pages. Graphic produced by Jake Meister)

Of course, these actions are courageous and by no means come as an easy decision to anyone, let alone for athletes of major sports who are covered so closely in the media.

But James and other players of the big four hold two key factors over an athlete of a less popular sport: the luxury of financial security and a built-in platform leveraging the coverage their sports receive. These provide a safety net for many athletes of the major sports should they feel the need to speak out, according to Michael Friedman, a lecturer at the University of Maryland who has had his research published in various sociology of sport journals.

In 2016, Colin Kaepernick protested police brutality by kneeling before games during the national anthem. Before the 2014 NFL season, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback signed what was at the time a record contract. The terms gave the University of Nevada alum $126 million over the course of seven years. But a diminishing player profile on the field cut short his career and his protests may have contributed to that. He took about one-third of the money in deal -$39.4 million, according to Business Insider.

“I do consider what Kaepernick did to be to be very brave,” said Friedman. “Financially he should be secure for the rest of his life. Having that security enables athletes to go out and if they choose to speak out, that security gives them license. It gives them that ability to do it without hugely detrimental impacts on their lives.”

Michael Friedman teaches the history of sports in America at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. (Courtesy of Friedman/University of Maryland)

Despite the decrease in money, the amount Kaepernick brought in provided him with a means of support to where if the protest did end his football career (many argued it did), he would not be affected financially. In addition, as an NFL quarterback, he had a very-well established platform available 24-7 because of the league’s widespread reach.

Still, his situation is a stark contrast to athletes of less celebrity sports who speak out on societal issues. Such players risk losing their job and cannot necessarily rely on the financial security that Kaepernick had.

“They’re going to have to work harder,” said Andrew Joy, a sports psychology consultant based in Chicago who has worked with the city’s NHL franchise, the Blackhawks, a team that has the securities similar to Kaepernick or James. “They’re also going to have to try and work smarter. How do they get themselves tied into organizations or movements or things that they’re really passionate about to help get their voices out there?”

In addition to the battles less famous athletes have in simply earning an opportunity to speak out on societal issues, there is the added challenge of facing the potential repercussions that come when trying to demonstrate their passions for these problems.

Of course, big four players do confront backlash, but it is magnified more so when the individual does not have that built-in security because of the league’s popularity. With a real threat of losing their job based off the words they might say, Joy said some athletes especially in less popular sports might hesitate to speak out.

“I think people in general hold back on things for the sake of not wanting to be ridiculed or shunned or put in a certain box or category,” Joy said.

Joy earned his master’s degree from the School of Medicine at Boston University. (Andrew Joy/The Mental Difference)

At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and John Carlos did not express that fear, at least to the naked eye. After winning the track and field gold and bronze medals respectively, the duo in essence ended their careers as professional athletes because of a black power protest on the podium as the national anthem played.

“When you look at Tommie Smith and John Carlos, that’s bravery,” Friedman said. “Any future either of them would have had in sports evaporated that day.”

Many athletes in similar situations have demonstrated that courage, but others elected to stay away, which should not be viewed as a negative. It is more of a matter of if they feel it is in the best interest for themselves as they try and navigate the chaotic, dynamic and changing world of sports.

“To expect people in their early 20s to be really politically engaged or to be politically active I think is too much of an expectation to place on anybody,” Freidman said. “At the end of the day, people have to make the choices that are right for themselves.”

Photo at top: Lindsey Pulliam playing in a game last season against Wisconsin. (Ben Friedl/Medill)