What Activism in Sports Can Accomplish by Nigel Broadnax


Earlier this month the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association issued a letter to players encouraging proactive social consciousness on their part. The letter, issued specifically by league Commissioner Adam Silver and Players Association director Michele Roberts, assures the players that they possess “real power to make a difference in the world.” Silver and Roberts also promised that they would be of assistance in any planned efforts of this nature.

The league has seen a spike in its prominent faces speaking out on societal issues through different mediums over the last year. Much of the rise in activity was sparked by the National Anthem protests in the NFL led by the now infamous Colin Kaepernick during the 2016 season.

The sense of activism spilled into the NBA as players began to communicate more heavily to reporters or through social media about police relations, the presidential election, and their own personal experiences with the ills of society.

This letter effectively gives a green light to players to engage in activism combating ever-present social injustices. The fact that the league is choosing to endorse first amendment expressions of this nature is a big deal.

Players shedding a spotlight to areas of life that need change is a vital first step, and it’s more vital than many people realize.

Plenty of critics love to diminish the visual and verbal forms of activism and poke holes in its purpose. They find highlighting injustices through tweets to be a trivial practice. They see kneeling for the anthem as an empty gesture.

It’s all talk and no action — if you let them tell it.

These critics are quick to claim that actual hands-on work is the only demonstration that is meaningful. Efforts such as donating money to charities or making visits to communities of need are all that matter in the eyes of the protest-skeptics.

This past weekend and into the week the NFL saw an explosion of demonstration as a result of President Donald Trump’s condemnation of the previous taking of the knee going on in the league. Hundreds, of players decided to join taking part in the gesture with the handful who already were doing it.

Amidst all the backlash from people who find the act violently unpatriotic, this weekend also provided an opportunity debate whether communicative and symbolic protest is productive.

The notion of players performing tangible practices in the community to solve the issues rather than protest is a popular card to play by those who object the latter.

Even NBA players themselves stressed the importance of finding more direct ways of helping the community and move on from their short-lived and tepid display of interlocking arms with one another during the anthem a year ago.

Hands-on, grass root efforts are important, but players are already extremely engaged in that department. And the act of bringing awareness to social issues is not necessarily an inferior practice.

The threat of racism, and the destruction from it in this country is something that is firmly present. It’s a very real problem that has ruined lives for centuries. It will take continued action from multiple entities to correct the harmful doing.

One large hurdle obstructing that mission is the ignorance of the existence of racism and its impact.

A significant portion of the population is blind to the root of oppression from a systematic level. Some don’t care to ever see it and will never take the initiative to look into it any further than a glance.

But on the other hand, there are people innocently unaware of corruption. Without proper explanation, sufficient research or bearing witness to it, being left in the dark on these matters is a strong possibility. So the process of spreading the word is key.

During his quest to speak out against police brutality, Kaepernick had two notable missteps. One was wearing socks that depicted police officers as pigs while at a practice. The other was donning a t-shirt at a press conference that featured an image of the notoriously polarizing Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Both acts exuded offensive undertones.

Amongst the backlash received from these actions was this idea that the credibility of Kaepernick’s message was lost. That because of his choice of paraphernalia he associates with his views somehow disproves the presence of the problems he is fighting against.

This particular criticism serves as a great example of people being oblivious of complex oppression. People reacted as if Kaepernick got caught in a lie because his preaching for change wasn’t done with a soft, sensitive touch. As if numerous authors, political scientists, historians or full-time activists have not precisely explained these issues countless times in a more effective way than Kaepernick has done.

The uninformed crowd falsely believes this is Kap’s personal agenda, and not a broad one that’s rooted in historical evidence. The full context of the fight for racial equality is completely hidden from their attention.

It’s becoming clear that the ecosystem of sports fandom can attract those who aren’t the most well-read or socially conscious. Hell, the “stick to sports” ideology is morphing into a religious principle right before our eyes.

But many sports fans may be capable of comprehending the total significance of the messages being spread. Perhaps they need someone they are highly familiar with — like pro athletes, for instance — to explain it to them so that they finally grasp the idea, or finally choose to acknowledge the flaws of society.

While the most recent wave of protests in the NFL has vastly shifted the national conversation to the respect — or lack of thereof — towards Trump, much of the conversation still includes the root of what Kaepernick started. All of this pandemonium has forced the discussion of racial inequality into the forefront. Those who follow the NFL who have never given issues like this a thought have no choice but to now form an opinion about it. Even if many people continue to believe racism to be a myth, the continuity of the conversation is progress.

From there, people can be inspired to join in on the fight for social justice. Those who possess the privilege and power to actually force change may be convinced to get involved with the movement.

But they have to be reached first. And that’s what can be accomplished by famous athletes with millions of Twitter and Instagram followers who are constantly in the presence of rolling cameras.

Speaking out shouldn’t be viewed as a one-and-done effort. Repetition on that front is needed.

Maybe players aren’t the most qualified to convey these subjects, but using their massive platforms to voice important issues in even the most vague terms can only help the greater cause. You never know who it could get through to, or even when.

It takes as many committed people as possible to bring about widespread change. And it requires the involvement of people from multiple ends of the spectrum.

The value of the NBA enabling activism through communication by its employees cannot be understated. The NFL’s — perhaps slightly reluctant — enabling of player activism has gotten the ball rolling pretty massively

If sports is supposed to be this unifying force that brings together those from all walks of life, then why not maximize the full potential of that power?

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