Columns, Opinions

Campanelli ’18: Professional athletes deserve a political voice

By
Staff Columnist
Monday, September 25, 2017

Over the weekend, President Trump unleashed a series of tweets criticizing NBA star Steph Curry’s unwillingness to accept an invitation to the White House, as well as the multitude of NFL players who have collectively refused to stand for the national anthem. While these tweets are not the first time Trump has critiqued popular sports figures, they are striking because they speak to a broader societal issue: censoring athlete’s voices.

Ever since Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel during the national anthem back in 2016, many pundits have accused the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback of disrespecting the United States and misusing his platform as an athlete. While many have used this case to debate the application of First Amendment protections, Trump’s most recent critique takes it a step further. His statements insinuate that athletes should just be quiet, play a game, make their teams money and be happy they are earning a decent salary. This sentiment is, however, deeply flawed. Despite what some say, athletes have a crucial role in speaking up, speaking out and making a difference for society. And this social engagement can take many forms: Kaepernick raising awareness about police brutality, the U.S. women’s national soccer team fighting for equal pay or Muhammad Ali protesting against the Vietnam War. All of these athletes took a stand on topics that mattered to them and made a positive difference in the public perception of these issues. Activism is not antithetical to athletics; rather, it illustrates the power of sports to be a rallying cry for larger issues. It is this behavior that shows that sports are connected to who we are as a larger society.

Further, professional athletes make millions of dollars for their respective teams, brands and communities. They have large followers of children and adults who idolize their athletic abilities and look up to them. As such, they make a significant impact on our society, and we should not relegate them to silence. They should not be told to keep their mouths shut or their opinions hidden while others make millions off them. Speaking out on political issues is their right. If they choose to speak out, they should be respected and listened to, not vilified for their failure to “stick to sports.” It is for this reason that people like Tim Tebow — who, while in the NFL, kneeled as an expression of his Christianity — should not be lampooned by the media.

In this day and age of widespread political apathy, these athletes can be positive role models for change on both the left and the right. Through political activism, they can inspire people to talk about important issues that often are swept under the table — something that is crucially needed in our country. Needless to say, not everyone will agree with the message or the activism that certain professional players partake in, but that is okay. We need not agree on their message, but we do need to agree on the fact that they should not be punished for taking stands, whatever they may be.

Our professional athletes do not have to be mindless jocks. They do not have to be people who only are remembered for their physical abilities. These athletes are not all just dumb competitors; they come from diverse backgrounds, educations and walks of life. They bring different experiences to the sports they play, and they should be allowed to express this however they choose. Politicians, pundits, team owners and coaches should not actively discourage political activism by athletes because in doing so, they continue to perpetuate the myth that politics can be neatly separated from other segments of life. This is frankly not true, and owners and coaches should respect the agency and independence of players who feel the need and responsibility to speak out on broader issues. This will not desecrate the “game.” It will create a more realistic sport where the players are not just people who show up for games, but individuals who can be more deeply engaged in their communities and practice their rights as citizens of this country. If athletes believe they can make a positive difference, bring attention to an issue and help move our nation forward, we should not be so quick to judge them. We should rather rally around them and engage with them. Censoring our professional athletes is not the answer. Athletes have a powerful platform, and it is time that we let them use it.

Bryce Campanelli ’18 can be reached at bryce_campanelli@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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