Athletes continue to use their platform to speak out against injustices

By Pryce Jamison
August 29, 2021

Protests have swept the nation throughout 2020 with a call for justice. Some athletes have used their influence on social media and that has attracted mixed reactions. Broadcast sports have been something that American families, friends, and individuals in general have partaken in watching for many years, and the athletes who have gone against the norm and protested in any type of way are simply trying to show to the masses that what they stand for is bigger than the game itself.

Even though it’s been the most rapid this year, we’ve seen protests and strong messages occur before in American history from notable voices. Ever since the days in the 1960s when professional athletes such as Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Muhummad Ali would take the time to speak on social justice issues off the court, ring, field, etc, we saw many athletes over the decades taking initiatives for what they believe should be talked about and changed. Another branch of this discussion is the topic of defying the norms and using one’s platform to do so during a nationally televised event, which has been, at times, unexpected to the masses. 

After seeing Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the ear on the highest stage of world competition back in 1968, the world was unsure how many times they were going to see that again going forward. It seems like we are now living in the time period where it is the most common to do so, as athletes in these modern times simply can’t take what the nation has been seeing for too long.

Historic photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos putting up black power fists during the 1968 Mexico Olympics. Photo from Vision Invisible.

We’ve seen this heavily start to take place in the mid 2010s as NBA players wore the I can’t breathe warm-up shirts in the wake of the chokehold killing of Eric Garner in 2014, and Colin Kaepernick taking a knee that basically cost him his career in 2016. As the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked much tension and division in the nation, sports leagues started to take true notice this year that some viewers loved, and others disagreed with from in their own way, a patriotic standpoint.

“It set the tone in which they basically said that we aren’t going to continue to entertain people while people that look like most of us, are being unjustifiably killed without the proper justice being served afterwards,” sophomore basketball player Malik Bailey said. As the NBA returned from their league suspension due to COVID-19 in July, down in the NBA bubble in Orlando, they set the tone about where they stand on opening night prior to the tip-off of the Lakers vs. Clippers matchup, that at first opened with great ratings like many expected.

NBA stars wearing “I can’t breathe” on their warm-up shirts back in 2014, saying the quote that appeared to be Eric Garner’s last words. Photo from Next Covers.

A variety of messages being put on the back of jerseys and teams kneeling during the anthem revived a bitter feeling in the ones that strongly believe athletes should stick to sports instead of trying to speak out, which simply hasn’t sat well in the stomachs of these athletes that are constantly feeling confined to their profession. Ever since Fox News host Laura Ingraham told LeBron James to “shut up and dribble” back in 2018 for him being the spokesperson for politics and social justice that he is, we have further seen faces of the NBA such as LeBron James and Chris Paul continue to use their platform and push the league in a progressive direction.

“The ones that are criticizing are taking these athletes’ intentions of kneeling out of context, thinking that they want to disrespect the flag,” said sophomore soccer player TJ Scott. “They instead are trying to let the nation know that there are still flaws that exist that are holding us back to be even more unified and great as a nation.” As the NBA and WNBA led the charge for the most part in terms of these live demonstrations, the sports world took a pause when four NBA playoff games, three WNBA games, two NHL playoff games, a MLS game, and 14 MLB games were cancelled which was actually from the judgement of the players, after the police shooting of Jacob Blake. 

Portland Trailblazers point guard Damian Lillard and the question that was on the back of his jersey. Photo from Lillard’s Instagram.

These walkouts further brought awareness, as teams in the NBA had set up voting centers in their home arenas to make a step forward instead of just playing and acting like everything was ok, and to connect even more communities to remind them change can occur if we vote the right people in.

The ratings of these big NBA games did significantly decrease, and as people are looking into the factors that have played a role in this drop, many believe the walkouts and demonstrations during these nationally broadcast events have played a large role. The NBA playoffs opened with a 26 percent drop in the first round which was around the time of the walkouts for Jacob Blake, which translated over to a 35 percent decrease for the conference finals with an average count of 4.17 million viewers. The season culminated in a record low viewing of the NBA finals with only 7.5 million viewers which went down around 50 percent compared to the previous season.

Even with these lower ratings and the criticism certain people give to these athletes that are simply tired of this never ending cycle of injustice, we have only been seeing signs that a high presence of these protests will continue to come. Kneeling, locking arms, or even staying in the locker room during the national anthem has taken place throughout the fall in various NHL, MLB, and NFL games that’s making it seem like more of a common and understanding demonstration than when Kaepernick was an outcast for doing so. Overall, despite how many people start to watch them less and disagree with such acts, these professional athletes are simply not focused on a stamp of approval anymore and are more so driven on taking a stand for their humanity, and being there to support the ones that are affected by it the most.

Pryce Jamison

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