Sports activism should be encouraged, not silenced

An athlete has a powerful voice, and they must use it as a platform for real world problems.

Recently, Zlatan Ibrahimović — a forward for the soccer team AC Milan — revived an old debate about famous sports players and their role in social issues. In an interview with the Swedish sports news channel discovery + sport, Ibrahimović told basketball player LeBron James that he was a state-of-the-art-athlete but that he should stick to sports and leave politics to politicians.

This comment was reminiscent of Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham’s famous take on athletes’ role in activism just three years ago. In February 2018, Ingraham spoke out about LeBron James’s comments condemning the former president of the United States, Donald Trump.

“It’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball,” Ingraham said. “Keep the political comments to yourselves […] Shut up and dribble.”

In a press conference discussing the comments that Ingraham made, James stood up for himself.

“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,” said James.

James has over 80 million Instagram followers and he should be allowed to say what is on his mind and what he thinks is wrong or right with the world.

Just because he dribbles a ball for a living does not mean his voice is meaningless. He is a voice for many who may not have the courage or resources to say what they want and be heard.

It isn’t as if James’s life experience amounts to just playing basketball. James has done many great things for his community, most notably the I Promise School that he founded in 2018. The school services over 1,300 disadvantaged public-school kids in Akron, Ohio. Ultimately, James’s school has changed the lives of many children and families who needed free quality education. Nobody should reduce their role in society to just dribbling a ball. James’s views are his to share.

Professional sports players are devalued in the real world and are only seen as people who make a lot of money playing sports for the entertainment of others. But athletes have the power to change lives. Using their voices is certainly a tool to do just this.

With social activity held to a minimum during COVID-19, sports have become an increasingly popular pastime in people’s lives. Audiences seeing players speak about issues important to them is a great avenue for social change and acceptance. Ingraham and Ibrahimović have to open their eyes and see that everyone has a voice and a right to express it.

Colin Kaepernick — an athlete that played for the San Francisco 49ers — is one of the most memorable sports activists in recent history. His refusal stand for the national anthem in 2016 as a protest against the oppression of people of colour gave a voice for people who could not speak.

Kaepernick was awarded by Harvard University with the W.E.B. Du Bois medal — the highest honoured medal available in the department of African and African American studies — for his bravery for combatting racial inequality and injustice. His dedication to the cause ultimately cost him his position in the National Football League. Due to the outrage from high numbers of conservative fans and team owners, many teams were unwilling to sign the quarterback. Kaepernick remains true to his cause to this day and his sacrifice elucidated that many athletes are more than the sport they play.

When asked if he or his protests could be seen as un-American, Kaepernick said, “I don’t understand what’s un-American about fighting for liberty and justice for everybody.”

James and Kaepernick are only a couple of examples of athletes who have stood up and practiced what they preached.

A voice is a voice no matter who uses it, but athletes must use theirs to be positive examples for many young people who look up to them. Media must stop seeing athletes as empty vessels for our amusement, it is silencing crucial voices that must be heard.