Freedom of speech is an important right in the United States but for professional athletes, it can also cause trouble.
Professional athletes, whether from experience or longevity in the league, are usually smart about what to say and when to say it.
Professional sports are big business, and because of that, athletes are often under intense scrutiny from fans, media, and sponsors. Athletes who speak out on controversial issues risk alienating fans, sponsors, and even their own teams.
Most of an athletes dos and don’ts are listed all inside of the contracts they have to sign before they even start playing for the team.
Despite the challenges, many athletes have used their platforms to speak out on issues that matter to them. In recent years, athletes have been at the forefront of social justice movements, speaking out against police brutality, racial inequality, and other forms of systemic oppression.
When speaking out about controversial topics, often, an athlete is usually either dropped from their sponsors and hears a lot of backlash, or receives huge support from fans and fellow athletes.
Mark Weaver, assistant athletics communications director at Cabrini, said about collegiate athletes, “With NIL [terms in which college athletes are allowed to receive financial benefits], a college athlete could be a brand ambassador for something, and if they speak out against something that brand is for or against, they are now at a crossroads.”
The topic of freedom of speech in professional sports is contentious, with some arguing that athletes should be able to express their opinions freely, while others argue that athletes should stick to sports and avoid controversial issues.
King James steps up
In 2018, National Basketball Association superstar LeBron James was in an interview with another NBA superstar, Kevin Durant, for ESPN. James spoke out about the challenges of being Black and a public figure in the U.S.
Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham, “The Ingraham Angle,” said of James’ comments, “It’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball.” She added, “Keep the political comments to yourselves. … Shut up and dribble.”
James responded, “We will definitely not shut up and dribble. … I mean too much to society, too much to the youth, too much to so many kids who feel like they don’t have a way out.”
Back in late October of 2022, NBA superstar Kyrie Irving, used his platform in a negative way.
Irving posted a link on Twitter to an antisemitic film. He declined to apologize about the matter which ended up making his team at the time, the Brooklyn Nets, suspend him indefinitely.
Just a day after his team suspension, his relationship with Nike was then suspended, effective immediately.
Irving however, has since apologized for his actions and was able to finish off the year when he got traded to the Dallas Mavericks.
Brittany Runyen, coordinator of athletics student programming and Cabrini women’s soccer assistant coach, said, “One of the first things they [professional athletes] should understand when they get that platform, is that they aren’t just a professional athlete. They are role models for kids and even adults. They are speaking out for people all over the place.”