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Volume 23 No. 18
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Strength in numbers: Athlete activism on solid ground in 2019

Athletes across the globe are increasingly using their very public voice to represent the vast number of citizens who have been otherwise silenced with fear of reprisal if they speak up about social injustices. For decades, very few athletes spoke up because of the same fear. While today’s athletes also risk their livelihood when they choose to become public activists, they are more willing to do so because they now share the platform with other athletes.

Athlete activism is here to stay. I encourage sports organizations to embrace the idea of trusting and partnering with athletes to say or do the right thing for the sport, the country and the world.

It is very easy to include the athletes in an organization’s social responsibility plan. A well-developed and executed social responsibility plan includes athletes and garners media attention, enhancing fan perception of the team and sport. It also increases the fan’s trust in the sport. Social responsibility creates a positive, diverse and creative workforce, ultimately building trust among all stakeholders, including the athletes.

Olympian Allyson Felix recently used her public platform to address women’s maternal rights. Nike is her largest sponsor and her largest source of income. Her contract, like that of many other track and field athletes, was purely based on performance. It did not allow her the opportunity to have a child without a severe cut in pay. Like many men, I was not aware of this obvious inequity. Felix published an op-ed in the New York Times to accelerate the discussion with Nike and give women a voice. The power of sport has started a worldwide discussion about maternal rights, and Nike has changed its policy and joined the discussion. Maybe it will even help us recognize that the U.S. ranks with Swaziland, Lesotho and Papua New Guinea as the last countries on Earth that do not mandate paid maternity leave.

On the other side of the world, Raheem Sterling is a professional athlete with Manchester City. He was subjected to racist taunting during a Premier League match in December. He decided to use his public persona to address racism in sport by focusing on how the media portrays black athletes differently than white athletes, thus fanning the flames of racism. His message is the foundation of Kyle Korver’s op-ed titled “Privileged,” published by The Players’ Tribune in April. Korver, the veteran NBA player for the Utah Jazz, was affected by how teammate Thabo Sefolosha was treated by law enforcement a few years ago. He was inspired to write about his thoughts after witnessing Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook endure racist and inappropriate comments from fans earlier this year.

The power of sport amplifies the voices of athletes to create a larger influence for social change.

Sterling’s message has brought awareness to the racist culture that has long been present and tolerated in the world’s sport of football. The press now highlights overt acts of racism that occur during games, and there are organizations around the world collaborating to create a more inclusive culture in sport at all levels. Korver’s message received considerable press coverage and discussion. I hope this has resulted in many more people doing what he asked: Shut up and listen.

Allyson Felix, Raheem Sterling and Kyle Korver had the courage to risk their livelihoods and years of training and sacrifice to represent the unheard voices. Thankfully, Man City, the Premier League, the Utah Jazz and the NBA understood the value of social responsibility plans and the power of sport. Nike also did that in a big way when it supported Colin Kaepernick with its ad campaign last year.

Athlete activism is more than Muhammad Ali protesting an unjust war, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists on the Olympic podium, Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem, Felix writing op-eds in the New York Times, or entire NBA and WNBA teams wearing “I can’t breathe” T-shirts during warmups. It is also about supporting underserved communities. It is a way to give back to communities that have the biggest fans, but which have little or no voice for change.

LeBron James recognizes that he stands on the shoulders of so many who helped him achieve his dreams. He fulfilled his promise to the city of Cleveland to bring it a long sought-after NBA championship. Just a few short years later, he found a way to bring more hope to families in underserved Ohio neighborhoods when he opened his “I Promise” school, which provides tuition, uniforms, meals, transportation and many other benefits to allow children to attend school and begin the path to achieving their dreams.

As Felix noted in her op-ed, you can’t change anything with silence. The power of sport amplifies the voices of athletes to create a larger influence for social change. Felix, Sterling, Korver and James, unlike athletes before them, were successful in achieving change without further sacrificing their careers. This is in part because they are sharing the platform with other athlete activists, and their teams and employers understand the benefits of trusting and partnering with them.

Athlete activism continues to change the public conversation about several social justice issues. All sports organizations should develop social responsibility plans that include a strong partnership with athletes and represent the voices that have been silenced in fear. This is the true spirit of the power of sport.

Richard Lapchick ( is chairman of the University of Central Florida’s DeVos Sport Business Management program and is director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport and the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick. David Zimmerman made a significant contribution to this column.

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