Sports and games have been around since the inception of humanity – ever since the wheel was invented, there have been two people straddling what I imaging to look like a stone tire and racing it down a hill. The earliest form of large-scale competition were the Olympic Games in Ancient Greece, widely thought of as an event where different athletes from a multitude of city-states travled far and wide to compete solely in the name of sport and competition. Well, bullshit. In fact, the Olympics was an event for the multiple city-states of Ancient Greece to exert their political will over their neighbours by showing how good they were at decathlon.
Since then, we have seen the same phenomenon play out over and over again. For instance, in 1980, when the U.S. beat the Soviet Union at ice hockey, it was viewed as a battle of ideologies, with Western capitalists coming out on top. Another instance was when the Soviet Union played Hungary in water polo, after the failed Hungarian Uprising of 1956. The tensions escalated into such a rough game the match is still referred to as the “Blood in the Water” match.
Sports are – and have always been – political. Because of this, it is not uncommon for athletes to become embroiled in political issues. This has paved the way for the ‘activist athlete.’ In no way is this a new trend; for years we have seen athletes come out and use sports and competition as a venue to voice their political views.
One example of this can be seen at the 1968 Olympics, where gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos raised their fists in the Black Power salute during the American national anthem as a show of protest. To this day, this is seen as the most overtly political statement in Olympic Games history. In other cases, the athletes’ protests are more nuanced, where simply playing the sport is a show of protest. For example, Jackie Robinson was the first black man to play in Major League Baseball. This came during a time when the Jim Crow laws were still in effect, and the U.S. was a deeply segregated nation. By playing in this period, Robinson challenged the segregation by being the only person of colour in the entire league, and refusing to be pushed out after enduring countless racial taunts and physical abuse from fans, referees, and others players.
There have undoubtedly been many other activist athletes, but recently we have an even greater number appearing. However, with the rise of the ‘activist athlete,’ it is important to draw distinctions between the types of activism that they engage in, rather than lumping all athletes who engage in political issues into the same category.
These distinctions are important to make, because taking up philanthropic causes is, in fact, a lucrative business – too often causing some to merely do it for good PR. These athletes use their cause of choice in order to pander to their fans and become then more marketable, which leads to their inking new and well-paying endorsements. It is this type of activist athlete that gives the rest a bad name, but also manages to never be called out – that is, unless they become involved in a scandal.
In 2012, Lance Armstrong – seven-time winner of the Tour de France and cancer survivor – was busted for blood doping, where he artificially increased the number of red blood cells to boost athletic performance. Aside from arguably being the most well-known cyclist in modern history, Armstrong also started his own charity called Livestrong, which is directed at raising money and providing support for cancer survivors.
Armstrong would use Livestrong to shield himself from any accusations of blood doping, building a narrative that essentially said: ‘How dare you question me? Look at what I have done for cancer survivors!’ Seeing that he used survivors’ narratives and struggles for his own personal gain, it is fair to say that Armstrong’s version of athlete activism was self-serving. An example of this is when asked if he was blood doping, he would use his image as the cancer survivor who still continued to win while supporting other survivors to deflect the issue. Cycling great Greg LeMond calls Armstrong a “thug who used his cancer-survival story and cancer charity to manipulate the cancer community and shield himself from allegations.” Even though Armstrong had a stake in this issue, by positing himself as the voice of all cancer survivors, but using that voice to further his own self-interest, he betrayed the cause he claimed to value so dearly. Luckily he is not the only athlete who has had a stake in something and chosen to take a stand.
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling has a long history of racist comments; however, this summer his comments took centre stage after a recording of his remarks became public. The Clippers were in the middle of playoffs when the news broke, and when they walked on the court ready to play their next opponent, everyone noticed that their warm-up gear was inside-out. This was a protest staged by the players refusing to wear the logo of a team with a racist owner.
This silent protest was inspiring, because it showed that players do have the power to take action to address larger social issues; however, one critique of this event was that the players could have done more. Sometimes as activists, we dream about what it would be like if we just said, ‘Fuck the system!’ and did not show up for work the next day. But then we realize that not going to work is not an option for everyone, and that it requires a certain level of privilege to play hooky, or risk losing your job by not showing up. Athletes have the privilege to get paid large amounts of money to play a game. By refusing to play that game not only would it be the buzz of the sports world by drawing attention to the issue, but, in the case of the Clippers, it would hit Sterling where it hurt: right in the wallet.
Still, this effort by the Clippers is a prime example of athlete activism, and shows how powerful it can be when the athletes have a stake in the issue they choose to support, without exploiting it for their own good.
The most current and most powerful display of athlete activism has come after a trend of some of the grossest miscarriages of justice in recent history. After the grand jury failed to indict Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s killers, people all across North America gathered to say that black lives matter. Many athletes have joined this movement, In the NBA, during their warm-ups, players wear shirts saying “I can’t breathe,” Garner’s last words before he was killed. NFL teams like the Rams have entered the stadium with their hands up, like Brown a gesture that has become synonymous with the movement.
These shows of solidarity are only made stronger when the athlete who choose to take a stand on a certain issue also have a stake in the issue. When his team played the Brooklyn Nets, basketball player Kyrie Irving explained to the pre-game press corps why he was wearing an “I can’t breathe” shirt. “I think it’s really important that we show our respect to the families. More importantly, we’re in the city where tragedy happened, and it’s really important to us that we stand up for a cause, especially this one. It hits close to home and means a lot to me.”
Athletes command a lot of influence and attention in our day-to-day life. There will always be athlete activists. However, it is important that we hold them accountable by distinguishing between those who use activism simply as good press, and those who have a genuine interest in and commitment to moving their chosen cause forward. Until then, activist athletes will come in all different shapes and forms; some will make a difference, but some will opt for the money. Either way, just as we choose to cheer for certain teams, we should choose to cheer for certain activists.