By: Kayla Merriweather
From the Black Power salute by African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 Olympics to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the national anthem, sports stars have consistently had an important role in social justice issues. Many athletes and people in general look up to professional athletes when it comes to their skills and charisma, but their stance on pertinent issues can either make or break their image.
Spurred by the death of Trayvon Martin in February 2012, various sports individuals and teams have made statements in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and its associated issues of gun violence, racial profiling, and oppression. In light of Kaepernick and other NFL players kneeling or raising their fist during the national anthem, many have questioned whether athletes should speak on political or social issues.
Athletes should be able to voice and share their stances on social and political issues because it’s their right. For all athletes that are U.S. citizens, the Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression under the First Amendment. However, there should be a limit to the commentary professional sports players give.
While it is noble for athletes to use their platform as a means to give their thoughts on current events, it is also important that they remember the way others perceive them. Countless athletes are role models for younger children who aspire to excel in a certain sport. If an athlete were to give their views on politics in a profane manner, knowing that youth can see their comments, it would tarnish their image irreparably. However, athletes who use their position to delineate their opinion in a thoughtful, non-derogatory manner are relatively well-received by the general public.
On the other hand, athletes that dismiss issues that apply to them are also a source of criticism. For example, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newtown received backlash for his comments in an August interview with GQ Magazine.
When asked about his previous comments in January about being an African-American quarterback, Newton replied, “I don’t want this to be about race, because it’s not. It’s not. Like, we’re beyond that. As a nation.”
In stark contrast, Colin Kaepernick’s explanation for why he decides to kneel during the national anthem proves his social awareness and use of his platform to convey a point, albeit controversial.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick explained. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Many coaches across different sports have reacted to Kaepernick’s protest, claiming they would bench any player that didn’t stand for the national anthem. However, the 49ers organization supports Kaepernick’s choice, a surprise to many.
“The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony. It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens,” the statement described. “In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.”
Just like other prominent figures in the country, professional sports players have a certain responsibility that’s bigger than just sports. With commentary on issues that relate to or affect them, players can portray themselves as aware and conscious in today’s society. While many do not agree with Kaepernick’s choice to kneel, the decision implies the responsibility and alertness he possesses.