Athletes Play More than Just Football this NFL Season

The recent movement sparked by San Francisco’s 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, is another example of an athlete who used his platform to highlight a social issue – oppression of “black people and people of color” in the U.S. Since Kaepernick’s sit-out and subsequent taking a knee during the U.S. national anthem, several other NFL players, teams, and other athletes have weighed in by also sitting out, kneeling, raising a fist in the air, or interlocking arms with teammates and coaches before the start of their games. These athletes seem to have won the attention of the public, including President Obama, through their expressions. So what is next? History has shown that garnering attention is only the first step in creating social change; the next step for this, dare I say, movement, should be to invest in top-down and bottom-up levels of society.

Kaepernick is among a growing list of athletes who have gained attention through their non-violent protests. Muhammad Ali was stripped of his boxing title and boxing license, and was suspended when he refused to be drafted into a war that he did not believe in and which conflicted with his religious beliefs. Olympic track medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos were banned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for raising their fists in the air during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner at the 1968 Summer Olympics. As Carlos later confirmed in his autobiography Silent Gesture, the now iconic act was a salute to human rights.

These individuals successfully captured the attention of the entire country. They initiated passionate debates, challenged the status quo, and invoked support and admiration as well as criticism. Once the shock waves of their protest died out and were deemed no longer newsworthy, the impetus for change dissipated. To create a lasting social change where patterns of behaviors and norms are altered, requires a sustained effort that addresses root causes. Change needs to happen at multiple levels of society, such as from grassroots (bottom-up) and from institutional (top-down) levels.

Kaepernick’s then sit-out was discussed in a recent Washington Post article by Zack Linly in the context of racial tensions. Linly suggested that to ultimately fight systemic racism and oppression, the African American community must invest in self-care. Indeed, the notion of self-care is good advice. Every member of an ethnic group understands the intricacies and culture of its own group better than the “outsider.” Therefore, implementing short-and-long term investments of time and money into one’s own community to help fulfill unmet needs and to provide opportunities where there might have been none, will address some root causes. However, investments cannot be made in isolation because for (1) we do not live in an isolated world and (2) social change can only happen when issues are successfully addressed at multiple levels.

Kaepernick said he will donate all profits made from the increased sales of his jersey back to the communities, in addition to the first million dollars of his salary to charity. This is a worthy pledge if the time and money is invested with an understanding that social change requires changes of patterns, behaviors, and perceptions at multiple levels of society. He and the other inspired athletes can continue to exercise their constitutional right to freedom of expression, continue to capture public attention by moving the dialogue forward, and invest their resources in social circles, schools, businesses, and local and federal institutions.

Athletes can always make a difference; the effect lies in how they create a foundation to continue when all the flash of the light bulbs are gone.

John Carlos and Soolmaz Abooali, 2015
John Carlos and Soolmaz Abooali, 2015
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