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Volume 21 No. 13
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Athletes rising to the occasion on issues of social justice

As I near my 70th birthday, I realize that I have been trying to use the sports platform and the power of sports to address serious social issues during my entire adult life. While there have been epic moments during that journey when athletes and people from the world of sports have stood up on social justice issues, these moments have been few and far between — until recently.

When I think of these epic moments when athletes have used their platform to address serious issues, I think of Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Billie Jean King, David Meggyesy, Arthur Ashe and a few others. In all cases, they took serious risks to their careers because the idea of athletes speaking out was not acceptable to most sports business leaders.

It seems like there has been a tidal shift with athletes speaking out over the last year, especially after the Donald Sterling case exploded. It started with the Clippers protesting on the court before a 2014 playoff game. Since then, many players across different sports have spoken out about serious social justice issues outside of sports.

As I write this, the NBA Finals is in full swing. I think back to the All-Star break in February, when future MVP Stephen Curry showed support for Deah Shaddy Barakat’s family. Barakat was one of the three Muslim college students murdered in North Carolina in February. Curry wrote #CurryForDeah and #RIPDeah on his shoes during the 3-point shooting contest. It had been reported that Barakat was a fan of Curry, so he sent the shoes to the victim’s family so they would know how many people cared about their terrible loss.

After the Ferguson, Mo., grand jury refused to charge the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, NBA MVPs Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Magic Johnson along with Portland’s Damian Lillard and the Los Angeles Clippers’ Matt Barnes spoke out in disapproval. St. Louis Rams players Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, Chris Givens, Kenny Britt and Jared Cook showed their feelings on the field before a game with the “hands up, don’t shoot” pose that became synonymous with protesters in Ferguson. NFL running back Reggie Bush, tennis star Serena Williams, broadcaster and former NBA player Kenny Smith, and two Oregon basketball players lent their voice to speak out about Brown’s death.

LeBron James was among the athletes protesting the death of Eric Garner.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
More NFL and NBA players spoke out about the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y. Again, a grand jury declined to indict the officer who held Garner in a choke hold until he uttered “I can’t breathe” several times before losing consciousness and dying. Members of the Georgetown basketball team stood during the national anthem wearing shirts that read “I Can’t Breathe” before a game against Kansas.

More recently, after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in Baltimore, NBA players Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce and John Wall were joined by former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, several current Ravens players and Olympian Michael Phelps in expressing disappointment and remorse. While all called for calm, they expressed deep concern over Gray’s death.

Many athletes, including James, expressed deep concern when an officer shot and killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy holding a toy gun at a park in Cleveland.

It was not only racial issues that drew athletes’ attention. Former NFL players Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe spoke out publicly in favor of same-sex marriage. Also, virtually the entire U.S. women’s national soccer team, led by Abby Wambach, lent their support to Caitlyn Jenner.

NFL wide receiver Brandon Marshall became an advocate for addressing issues surrounding mental illness. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers has taken up the cause of helping to end conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Twenty-one current and former NFL players participated in the NFL public service announcements about gender violence during regular-season games and the Super Bowl. Along with the league, the players were making a contribution to society focusing on serious issues through the sports platform.

Shut Out Trafficking helped organize athletics departments on 10 college campuses this year to take a stand against human trafficking in a way that involved nearly 20,000 students at the schools (Alabama, UCLA, Nebraska, Denver, Chicago State, Tulane, the University of Central Florida, St. John’s, LaSalle and Brown). Shut Out Trafficking is a partnership between the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and the National Consortium for Academics and Sports.

There are many traditional sports leaders who are undoubtedly fearful of what may have been unleashed here. I am not among them. For me, most of this augurs well for those of us in the sports world who believe that sports can heal communities, bring about positive social change, create legacies for our youth who face so many crises, and bring hope.

It will help us if sports business leaders identify and help this generation’s Jackie Robinsons and Billie Jean Kings lead our nation through positive social change, instead of blocking their paths.

I call on all sports management programs and sports business leaders to let athletes know it is safe for them to stand up. I had to wonder why no members of the WNBA Liberty took a stand against Isiah Thomas as an owner, yet just a year before, the entire Clippers team took action on the court over Sterling. Do we feel safe to speak out on race but not gender? That would reflect most of the racial and gender report cards, where leagues are doing better on race and worse on gender.

It gives me great hope that we will use the platform of sports in an expanded way in the years ahead. Society can only be better for it if we use the power of sports in such positive ways.

Richard E. Lapchick (rlapchick@ucf.edu) is chairman of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program and is the director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick.