Even though I am not typically a sports enthusiast, I spent my Thanksgiving break absorbed by the long-awaited opening game of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Increasingly, however, protests and politics have become larger forces on the field than even the players themselves. Just a few weeks in, several World Cup teams attempted a campaign against anti-LGBTQ laws in Qatar, and the Iranian team refused to sing their national anthem in solidarity with uprisings at home. Sports provide a powerful platform that athletes should be allowed to leverage to demand social justice and participate in global political discourse.
National and international sporting events can unite millions of people, establishing the optimal stage for political activism. FIFA estimates that this year’s World Cup will be watched by more than five billion viewers around the globe. This isn’t the only sporting event that attracts massive viewership — the 2022 U.S. Open garnered a peak audience of 6.9 million people, and the Super Bowl reached an estimated 208 million viewers this year. Such high-profile games have the power to bring together unprecedented numbers of people. As such, it would be a missed opportunity if athletes didn’t utilize these unique moments to challenge or advance social issues. Being political and playing a sport are not mutually exclusive.
In fact, there is a deep history connecting sports with politics. In 1967, Olympic gold medalist and boxing star Muhammad Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam War despite the consequences — which included losing his world title and boxing license. Soon after, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists at the 1968 Olympic podium in support of the civil rights movement. They, too, were punished for taking a stand and were suspended from the Olympic team. In speaking out against injustice, they paid the price of their athletic careers.
Today, athletes continue to leverage their respective platforms to make a political point, with varying degrees of acceptance. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police shootings of Black Americans. When he became a free agent, no team signed him, which some speculate was due to his activism. Similarly, American shot-put medalist Raven Saunders could be facing penalties for holding her arms in an “X” during a tournament in the 2021 Olympics. This gesture, meant to symbolize the intersection of marginalized identities, violated the International Olympic Committee's ban on political demonstrations on the podium.
But we have also seen a greater number of athletes who have been able to express their political views while still maintaining a successful athletic record. For each round of the 2020 U.S. Open, Naomi Osaka wore a face mask with the name of a different Black person who had died at the hands of the police. Osaka won the tournament, and her bold statement sparked dialogue about racism and police brutality, while also expressing support for the victims’ families. U.S. women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe led the team’s winning lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation over gender discrimination while leading her team to a World Cup victory and becoming the top scorer that year. As long as fans are willing to accept these kinds of political moves, more and more athletes will be able to take a stand on issues they believe in.
Yet, despite these athletes’ inspirational actions, some fans believe sports should remain apolitical. There is a view that athletes should just “shut up, and dribble,” based on the idea that sports are merely a human spectacle. We are entertained by watching athletes challenge what is humanly possible with their bodies but fail to recognize them beyond these impressive physical capabilities. By denying them the ability to opine on relevant contemporary issues without obstruction, we further reduce them to little more than lifeless avatars in a video game. Those calling for the depoliticization of sports fail to recognize that athletes are members of society who are subject and witness to the same injustices as the rest of us. In the modern political landscape, we cannot afford to silence our athletic leaders. Instead, celebrating and accepting a sports arena that is political would allow us to fully humanize the people behind the talent.
At the same time, however, while athletes should be able to take stances on political issues, not all forms of political expression should be embraced. A month ago, Nets basketball player Kyrie Irving posted the link to a deeply antisemitic 2018 film wrought with false messaging, including that the Holocaust never happened. Irving reaped the consequences of his actions as the Nets suspended him for weeks from their team and Nike severed ties. Professional athletes should have the right to speak out about issues they care about, as long as they don’t promote hate and violate the fundamental norms of political discourse. Athletes, like others with large platforms, have a responsibility not to spread misinformation and hate. If teams and companies continue to hold athletes accountable when they do so, then we can ensure a safe and healthy political sports arena.
Athletes at all levels, from collegiate to professional, have a right to comment on the inequities plaguing our world — and it is a right that they should exercise. Sporting events bring people together, which means that athletes are given a unique opportunity to make a social impact. As more athletes take the risk of expressing their political views, they should feel able to do so freely. It is time to let athletes be political.
Yael Wellisch ’26 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.