We Need More Activist Athletes

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-ESPYs

There’s no doubt America loves its sports, and its champions.

Earlier this week, two-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers went on the radio waves in Milwaukee, where he shared that he felt NFL culture and its administration discourage its players from being vocal and speaking out on social issues.

The Green Bay Packers quarterback pointed at the NBA, where players are promoted to speak out. It’s an environment that he praised Commissioner Adam Silver for creating.

Although Rodgers admitted that he, himself, is not exactly the most outspoken, he would like to see more players freely share their opinions.

He had a chance to do just that. After the weekend riots and unrest in Milwaukee, on Monday, Rodgers was in front of microphone once again and was asked to give his opinion on what had just happened.

He said: “I don’t know the specifics about it, but I do know that our heart goes out to those affected down there. This is a connected world. Anytime there’s a disconnect like that, it’s disappointing to see. Our thoughts and our prayers go with all of those affected, and we hope that the violence doesn’t continue down there.”

After digesting Rodgers’ sentiments on the Milwaukee riots and athletes speaking out, as well as, processing Jabari Parker’s heartbreaking essay in The Players’ Tribune on his experiences in Chicago and how he and fellow citizens can make it a better place — I was thinking.

Athletes have the platform and the means to potentially influence thousands, if not, millions of people across the world. Their role transcends that of those just playing a sport; they are celebrities with many adoring fans. They should utilize this channel to communicate positive messages and be good role models for society. Like everyone else, they surely must have opinions on what is going on in the world. They shouldn’t be afraid to share them and move the masses, as opposed to being apolitical.

We live in a sports-crazed and celebrity-obsessed country. We love our superstars and the sports heroes that are born from great moments.

According to Nielsen ratings, nine of the top 10 most watched television broadcasts in United States history all belong to past Super Bowls, with XLIX sitting atop with 115.2 million people tuning in.

Jerseys, posters, and other merchandise–it’s clear to see the impact such stars have on everyday society and culture. They definitely have people’s attention.

Rodgers gave a safe and thoughtful response. It doesn’t really rock the boat too much, as he doesn’t take a side or give a call to action, but he doesn’t dismiss it. He cares, but in a way, he’s removed from it.

And it’s exactly how the NFL likes it.

In 2012, punter Chris Kluwe had a reputation for being an activist that wasn’t afraid to share his opinions. He was involved and vocal in the LGBTQ movement.

The Minnesota Vikings eventually released him, and he hasn’t had a job since. He accused the Vikings of cutting him because of his outward support for the LGBTQ community. The team has vehemently denied this, but it can’t be too much of a coincidence. Kluwe was consistently tagged with the term “distraction” and at 34-years old, he’s far from being a dinosaur in the NFL.

While it’s only one case in recent history, it’s no surprise that NFL players would be apprehensive. There are a number of other reasons why a pro athlete might want to keep to themselves.

It might affect their marketability. A polarizing comment may result in endorsements backing out and loss of fan support. After all, it’s easier to make money when everyone loves you, as opposed to making one side feel alienated. Remember the famous line Michael Jordan once said, when he refused to endorse a Democratic candidate for a Senate race in North Carolina?

Republicans buy shoes, too.

He’s a conscientious businessman and during his time in the NBA, he removed himself from true political discussion. That’s how fans may like it, their favorite athletes are around to do one thing — entertain. Sports are an escape and provide a break from reality. They don’t mix with conflict and politics. Fans pay money to see these players in person for entertainment purposes — not to see them protest, make a speech, or support some social campaign.

Besides, why seek out the opinions of an athlete, when you can get a formally educated take from someone with a Ph.D. or a degree? Leave the athletes on the field to run plays and the politicians to run a nation.

How about, no.

We are living in a time where the American public is skeptical of its politicians to make positive change in society. This doubt is magnified ten-fold when it comes to our presidential candidates for November’s election.

In a recent Washington Post/ABC News survey taken earlier this month, 57 percent of respondents said they were overall dissatisfied with having to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. 59 percent deemed Clinton untrustworthy, and 62 percent felt the same way towards Trump. Another poll taken by Rasmussen Reports, revealed similar numbers, although slightly more people did not trust Clinton in this one.

Regardless, according to those results, a majority of the population is going to be dissatisfied and distrusting of our next president. It’s a shame that the overall public feels shaky about the next person who is supposed to lead this country and make it great.

The country needs role models and positive influences, those that it can look up to.

As of right now, NBA superstar LeBron James has 32.4 million followers on Twitter. That’s more than presidential candidates Trump and Clinton combined. Separately, Trump (11 million) and Clinton (8.37 million) don’t even have half of James’ follower count.

Not saying “LeBron for President 20XX” but rather, here’s a guy that has a vast network of people that he can reach out to (at least on Twitter). One tweet can reach significantly more people than either of our presidential candidates. One message holds a lot of weight.

I am in full support of athletes speaking out, when it’s used responsibly, and getting involved with the community. It can also add to their legacies, like it did for Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Jim Brown, John Carlos, and Tommie Smith. And that’s just some of those athlete-activists.

One of Ali’s most notable moments was refusing to fight in Vietnam after being drafted, standing up for his religious reliefs and speaking out against racism. King meant a lot for gender equality in sports and even beat former men’s champion Bobby Riggs. Brown got the Bloods and Crips to sit down in Los Angeles and call a truce in the early 90s, resulting to a dip in crime rates and more kids off the streets. Olympians Carlos and Smith stood up for African-American rights and became iconic figures in the civil rights movement.

People already look up to LeBron James and other athletes. Young fans want to emulate what he does on the court, why not off the court, too.

Over the last couple of years, he hasn’t been afraid to share his takes on the world and get involved with the community.

Most recently, he and other NBA superstars–Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Paul–opened the ESPYs with a speech calling for an end to police brutality and retaliatory violence.

It’s one thing to send thoughts and prayers, but he’s backing up his talk by getting involved in the trenches by helping his local community.

His I Promise program is offering 2,300 scholarships to college for high school graduates in Akron. On top of that, he’s getting involved with the youth with his Lebron James Family Foundation, guiding over 1,200 kids through school with the establishment of a commitment to education. He even sends these kids personalized letters praising their work or to lend some words of encouragement.

It’s gestures like these that make these larger-than-life athletes more human and easy to relate to. Media outlets report on the bad–the Ray Rices, the Greg Hardys, the Johnny Manziels–it’s nice when stars are trying to make a positive change and set a good example for the youth around the country, especially the ones in the inner cities.

Jabari Parker paralleled this idea in his essay, saying, “There are not a lot of kids from the ghetto who see themselves as the next Steve Jobs. And that’s because there are not a lot of people telling them that they can do whatever they want to do.”

This year, his home city of Chicago has seen over 2,500 victims of gun violence.

Parker plans on following through with his message for change by becoming more involved with the community and has his long-term plans after basketball set, “I want to become a teacher after I get out of the league, and help show kids what my dad and Ms. Reed showed me: There’s more out there than the gangs, than the liquor stores, than the violence.”

We’ve seen the impact that some athletes can have when they become vocal and involved with social issues, no matter how big the scale is — whether it’s national or local. Guys like James and Parker are slowly bringing change to their communities, imagine what progress would be gained if everyone else stepped in.

When athletes use their platform and network responsibly, they can inspire and impact so many lives — to not take advantage of this would be remiss and a missed opportunity.

It’s time for league administrators to loosen the leashes they have on their players, and for players to bravely speak out.

The world needs more athlete-activists or activist athletes, whatever you want to call it.

Because as one full-time activist — Martin Luther King Jr. — once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

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