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The Source: Will 2014 Mark A Return Of The Activist Athlete?


The tragic deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown at the hands of police, and the subsequent grand jury decisions, have led to riots in Ferguson, Missouri and protests and "die-ins" across the country. It's led to something else, increasing activism by the nation's top athletes.

From the St. Louis Rams' controversial "Hands up, Don't shoot" pose going into a game following the grand jury decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for any charges in the unarmed shooting of black teenager, Michael Brown, to the "I can't breathe" warm up shirts that many leading black NBA stars are wearing, police violence against African Americans may have sparked a reemerging activist athlete.

With few exceptions, like the great Muhammad Ali, U.S. athletes in the 20th century have avoided  commenting on societal issues. 

While 60s and 70s saw a high water mark of athletic activism,  in the past 25 years, professional athletes in the United States have been famously apolitical, making the front page far more for being irresponsible or behaving badly, than for speaking out on controversial topics.

When asked to support an early civil rights leader and progressive candidate for the Senate against Jesse Helms in his home state of North Carolina , Michael Jordan famously replied, Republicans buy sneakers too. Jordan, arguably one of the most famous athletes of the 20th century and an American icon, knew entering the political fray could jeopardize his endorsements and sales of his branded shoe. According to Leonard Moore, professor and VP of diversity at the University of Texas, Austin, Jordan represents the prototypical athlete of the last 25 years, more content to make it big and stay there than rock the boat. 

Republicans buy sneakers too - Michael Jordon

And why should they rock the boat? While it may be socially acceptable for these athletes to start educational funds, or lend their fame to fighting diseases like cancer, the negative reaction they receive from fans for taking on causes for social justice and political issues is generally unadulterated and often vicious.

In his study "Boos, Bans, and Backlash: The Consequences of Being an Activist Athlete," sociologist Peter Kauffman found that the negative reactions athletes received were far worse than other entertainers like musicians or writers. Additionally, it is less likely to have positive effect on their careers and more likely to have institutional repercussions.

That was the case when Rashard Mendenhall, running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, tweetedcriticisms of Americans for celebrating the death of Osama Bin Laden. He was reprimanded by Steelers owners, made to apologize, and lost high-paying endorsements. He later would retire at 26, saying he wanted to "live," travel and not be confined to the box that professional athletes are often put in. 

While we are seeing a resurgenceof activism this year from current protests of police violence against African Americans to the protests that ensued when former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling made disparaging remarks about black fans earlier this year, the idea of athletic activism isn't new, especially among African American athletes. 

Credit Cleveland Plain-Dealer
In 1967, some of the nation's top black athletes came to Cleveland to support Muhammad Ali in refusing the draft and to talk about the role of the African American sportsman in society.

Muhammad Ali famously said "No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger," when he explained why he refused to go to the Vietnam War. Ali's refusalcaused a firestorm of criticism and caused his career to flounder. Already a world champion, other black athletes, many veterans, came to his aid.

Many argue the meeting pictured above of America's top black athletes--including Jim Brown, Lew Alcindor, and Bill Russell--set the stage for several high-profile activists in the African American sports community. For example, it is argued the 1968 human rights gesture, raising a single black-gloved fist--often misrepresented as a black-power salute--made on the podium by black runners, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, resulted from the cultural awakening caused by the so-called "Ali Summit."

Will activism in sports sustain, or will the "just play" mentality return? And why do we react differently to sports stars when they take controversial stands?


  • Peter Kaufman, professor of sociology at the State University of New York, New Paltz
  • Leonard Moore, professor and vice president in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement
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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org