Sports activism and athlete involvement as a vehicle to advocate for social justice issues have long been part of American tradition. Athletes serve as role models to fans, children and young people while possessing the unique power to speak out on political matters on behalf of all their countrymen.
Athleticians should understand the political environment so as to anticipate any form of protest or criticism should they choose to advocate for their cause. Furthermore, athletes should remember that their voice and actions may either have positive or negative ramifications on an issue and should approach with care when speaking up on such matters.
Recent years have witnessed an increasing prominence of athletes as activists. This rise can be attributed to greater public and media awareness surrounding various social and political issues as well as an athlete’s need to stand out in his/her league. Athletes should remember the impact their actions can have on society as role models and be mindful of any actions which might impact upon it.
At one point in time, athlete activism was predominantly associated with social movements like the Civil Rights Movement or anti-war protests. American football players Bill Russell, Bobby Mitchell and Jim Brown joined Muhammad Ali’s Vietnam protestations by showing support during his 1967 press conference and 1968 Olympics games when sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during their medal ceremonies when their national anthem played. These moments marked an unprecedented level of athlete activism.
At present, athletes tend to engage in activism around topics such as mental health and sexual assault prevention. Student-athletes have increasingly engaged in activism that targets racial justice issues; this trend can be seen through the large numbers who participated in demonstrations and rallies for equality throughout summer and fall 2021 – from posting content to campus initiatives or rally participation.
To be effective, athlete activism requires setting out clear missions and goals that align with an overall strategy. Allies, mentors and sponsors who can provide guidance are crucial in amplifying an activist’s message. Furthermore, it’s vital that affiliated campus, conference and athletic groups know of an activist’s plan in order to ensure proper alignment.
Due to the challenging environment surrounding athlete activism and human rights activism–with its murky politics and diplomacy worlds as well as potential risks to an activist’s livelihood–few athletes consider using their exceptional abilities and skills to raise awareness or change human rights issues. In response, this paper proposes sports diplomacy as a strategy to add value and make athlete activism more sustainable, by taking advantage of existing infrastructure while creating new channels.