Sports | Shut up and play the game

Why don't athletes speak out anymore?

One of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century is the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics, after the 200 metre running event. Depicted are Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, both African-American, standing on the gold and bronze podiums, respectively, each raising a black, gloved fist into the night sky. The American national anthem was playing. It is a beautiful image of two athletes’ protest on one of the world’s biggest stages. A photographer would be hard-pressed to find anything like that image today. As athletes get more and more famous, they are removing themselves from social issues. Athletes simply don’t speak out about social issues as much today as in the past, and when they do, it is often met with intense criticism. But why?

One might say that athletes shouldn’t comment on social issues – better to leave that to politicians or members of the non-sports, “public” sphere. This ignores the fact that athletes have a ton of influence and reach. Their opinions are presented to the media more often than many politicians’ opinions. It also ignores the athletes as humans with opinions and convictions and marginalizes them into a group of people meant solely for our entertainment. Many athletes have the bully pulpit, the opportunity to reach a huge amount of people – but most stay out of the political realm.

Just recently, Brendon Ayanbadejo, a linebacker for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, publicly spoke out against a Maryland law that would ban same-sex marriage in the state. In response, Emmert C. Burns, a Maryland state legislator, wrote a letter to the owner of the Ravens, stating that it was “inconceivable that… Mr. Ayanbadejo would publicly endorse same-sex marriage, specifically as a Ravens football player.” Burns continued, asking the owner to “inhibit such expressions from [Ravens] employees and that [Ayanbadejo] be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions.”

This letter exemplifies the issues athletes face when speaking out. Burns, in his effort to limit Ayanbadejo’s free speech, first appeals to the Baltimore Ravens “brand” by questioning why the team would want to be associated with someone in support of equal marriage. Athletes, teams, and professional leagues are now so concerned with presenting a non-offensive, advertising-friendly “brand” that any comment on larger social issues is deemed dangerous. The advertisers and marketers can’t risk alienating their consumer base with controversial statements. This commitment to remaining inoffensive seems to have effectively silenced  a whole section of athletes, who value money over social justice. Or, if they want to speak out, a cavalcade of brand managers and financial advisors appear to stop them, in the interest of keeping their clients profitable. While this has much to do with the creation of sports superstars with unique brands – Michael Jordan, the man who could shill for anything, comes to mind – it also comes down to the athletes themselves, many of whom have wasted their opportunities.

The intense criticism that comes with athletes speaking out is also to blame. Smith and Carlos were both roundly criticized by major media outlets after their Olympic protest. Muhammad Ali, one of the most famous athletes of all time, was met with harsh criticism after speaking out against the Vietnam War. Many people claim that speaking out is a distraction to the team, shifting the focus away from game preparation and onto the player’s comments. This excuse is an easy way to shift blame onto an outspoken player; unfortunately, it is embraced by many organizations and leads to ostracizing within the league: why keep someone who creates distractions and is damaging to the brand? Only players with extreme talent and production can show themselves to be more valuable to the team than any trouble they create.  And those players, as I’ve said before, are now in the business of making a lasting brand.

These criticisms of athletes speaking out are also based in the idea of the percieved innocence of sports. “Why, oh why can’t they just play the game and leave the rest of the world alone?” critics say, clinging to an idealized notion. Many look to sports as an escape from the world around them, as pure, innocent games played independently of the complicated, threatening social issues that surround them. The athlete speaking out breaks through this isolation, makes the issue a part of the fan’s consciousness, and makes them uncomfortable.

Sports have become too prominent in the international landscape for anyone to pretend there is no intersection between sports and the greater social climate. Athletes have been given a national stage, and once there, they have remained mostly silent. Sure, there have been some recent stories of note – Ayanbadejo, for one; LeBron James and the Miami Heat tweeted a picture of the whole team in hoodies after the death of Florida youth Trayvon Martin; and some teams have decided to join the You Can Play and It Gets Better initiatives, fighting against homophobia and bullying within sports. But it’s not enough, not yet.

Ayanbadejo and others are outliers, but hopefully more and more athletes will become socially responsible public figures.