by Evan Joseph ‘23
Lebron James has gotten a lot of attention off the court in the past year by becoming vocal about his political opinions and because of his creation and involvement with the ¨More than a Vote¨ organization. Many believe that athletes should not be involved in social activism. Opponents often believe that athletes don’t know enough to form a relevant opinion. Others believe athletes should just stick to their sport. These arguments have risen again since James and athletes across the sports world are becoming more vocal in the BLM movement and in presidential and congressional elections over the past two years. But in reality this is nothing new, and many athletes over the course of American sports have voiced their opinions and rallied support for a multitude of civil rights movements.
A group of athletes in the 1960s, highlighted by boxer Muhammad Ali, were committed social activists. Ali’smovement began when he refused to register for the draft during the Vietnam War, noting that black men were being disproportionately drafted. Ali was supported by other notable athletes such as NFL running back Jim Brown, basketball center Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul Jabbar), and basketball center Bill Russell. Ali previously had changed his name from Cassius Clay in 1964 when he joined the Nation of Islam, and denounced his birth name as a slave name. He spent the remainder of his life fighting for civil rights, even marching with Martin Luther King Jr., making goodwill missions to Afghanistan and North Korea, taking medical supplies to Cuba, and travelling to Iraq to help secure the release of 25 hostages. Ali would go down as one of, if not the most politically influential athletes ever, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.
After the civil rights issues seemed to die down, so did athlete activism in the 1980s. The faces of the sports world in this generation seemed to stay out of politics and activism for the most part. Michael Jordan, arguably the most recognizable athlete of the 80s and 90s, made his stance on athlete activism clear by refusing to endorse multiple political candidates. Jordan famously was quoted as saying ¨Republicans buy sneakers too.¨ In a controversial Nike commercial in 1993, NBA superstar Charles Barkley declared, “I’m not a role model.” Since he became the most famous golfer in the world in the 1990s, Tiger Woods consistently has avoided taking public positions about politics.
This turn away from social activism would all change after a kid from Akron, Ohio named Lebron James was drafted into the NBA. Shortly after James burst onto the basketball scene, he became the face of modern athletics and athlete activism. James has made it clear that he thinks athletes should use their platforms to fight for change in society and what they believe in. There are countless interviews and statements from James giving his input on problems in racial inequality, society as a whole, and political candidates. Most recently, he consistently and publicly provided his support for the BLM movement. James, along with a group of other prominent black athletes and entertainers, formed a group named ¨More than a Vote¨ with the goal of educating and protecting African Americans voting rights.
Ever since James has been introduced to this large national platform he has used it regularly to voice his opinion and inspire younger generations to do the same. We now see more and more athletes step up to fight for what they believe in. But, it hasn’t all been support of James´ actions over the years. For example, after going out with Kevin Durant during an UNINTERRUPTED interview and criticizing former President Donald Trump, Fox News host Laura Ingraham told the NBA players to ¨Shut up and dribble¨ clearly with the intent of insulting the players for going out of their realm of sports and commenting on politics.
Arguably the most discussed and most popular display of athlete activism over the past five years was Colin Kaepernick’s decision to start kneeling for the National anthem to protest police brutality. The situation led to him being praised by many and criticized by others, and eventually released from his contract with the 49ers and blacklisted from the NFL. He is still a free agent looking for a way to get back in the NFL. His powerful statement has led to kneeling for the anthem becoming a regular practice for athletes wanting to protest. Activism by athletes seems to be here to stay. LeBron, Kaepernick and many others in the sports world are inspiring the voices of the future as we speak.