The recent tragedies and controversies over several racially tinged incidents has created a conundrum for many people who don't usually speak out about issues of race and inequality. Everyone from Michael Jordan to people in general workplaces have been vocal in a way that they weren't before. Many people are deciding if they should weigh in and if so, to what extent. How discrete or "politically correct" should they be? What will happen if their employer finds out that they are engaged in protests about a controversial issue?
There is a history of individuals paying a severe career price for engaging in the movement for civil rights and there has been a heightened level of acceptance and reward in the upper echelons of many industries and institutions for those who are perceived as docile and non-threatening. This may explain the relative silence of many athletes who may believe that speaking out will jeopardize potentially lucrative career opportunities like endorsement deals. If they muster up the courage to outwardly fight for justice within their workplace and outside of it, then they may be risking the employment that financially provides for themselves and their families.
Ministers, like those associated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), were historically at the forefront of the civil rights movement in large part because their economic base came from their congregations and not traditional employers. This gave them the freedom to speak their minds with minimal negative financial consequences.
Several athletes have garnered a fortune that puts them on an exclusive socioeconomic island far away from the masses of minorities who often live in communities characterized by economic deprivation and poverty. A recently published report noted that it would take 228 years for the average Black family to have the same net worth as their White counterparts.
The wealth and platform that these athletes have amassed affords them a financial independence similar to that of the aforementioned ministers. A sense of a broader responsibility should come with this status as they are the beneficiaries of the sacrifices made by those who came before them.
Modern day athletes and everyday professionals are frequently told that they would be committing career suicide by engaging in civil rights and to stay away from social activism so as not to be seen as too militant or radical. The punishment for stepping outside of the box and speaking out can be severe. Muhammed Ali had to make incredible career sacrifices for being vocal about his beliefs and being critical of U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam. His stances and refusal to be inducted into the army ultimately cost him his prime fighting years. He was a different fighter when he finally returned to the ring.
The sacrifices that were made by Ali and others like Jim Brown and Bill Russell is ultimately what made them legendary figures. The fortune and fame that many athletes have garnered should not just be an end in itself, but it can be used as a platform to advance equity and social justice. They have a special opportunity to shine a light on issues that need to be publicized. NBA stars LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul did an admirable job of highlighting important concerns during the ESPY Awards in July and other athletes like have very solid records of community involvement. Hopefully, their actions will inspire more of their peers to increase their level of engagement with social issues.
The next step beyond bringing awareness to certain issues is to identify and promote specific policy measures that would move the ball forward. Athletes don't necessarily have to be policy wonks on their issues of choice, but they can use their leverage to bring key people to the table where big decisions are made. They can help to start key conversations with policymakers and bring along a coalition with them to help complete them.
College and professional athletes can also exercise influence within their own arena by using their leverage to create off the court opportunities for minorities who have been previously locked out of certain areas. For example, the NBA and NFL Players Associations have immense power to create front office opportunities. An article from the Undefeated in June noted that despite the NBA's composition of 74.4 percent Black players, there are only three Black general managers and one Black team president. Pressure from current players would likely be highly influential in changing those numbers.
The stance that the University of Missouri football team took last year in support of their fellow students who were protesting over racial issues on campus is an example of the kind of leverage and power that athletes can have. The movement at Mizzou prompted the resignation of the University of Missouri System President and caused universities across the country to reexamine their policies and practices related to diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus.
Additionally, high profile athletes can influence millions of young boys and girls to act in ways that are not just self-beneficial, but act in ways that benefit the greater good. The ability for young athletes to see themselves in others and to shun the status of being the typical socially uninvolved athletes can and should be cultivated. This message goes beyond athletes and expands to those who occupy more conventional occupations. This is the time for people to come out from behind their cubicles and push the envelope on issues that matter to them. Effective leadership is not in the center, it is on the edge.
When athletes take the risk to speak out, it can inspire the broader public to utilize their platform to advance important causes. People of all walks of life can be motivated to address the stratification of opportunity that remains in many communities. Sports figures can attack societal challenges with the same vigor and enthusiasm that they exhibit on the courts and playing fields and be Hall of Famers in making a positive influence in areas that desperately need to be uplifted.
Marcus Bright, Ph.D. is a Political and Social Commentator