In light of the recent political protests by professional athletes, many bloggers have declared that political activism has finally made its way back into the realm of professional athletics. With the St. Louis Rams’ protest of the decision in the Michael Brown case and Derrick Rose wearing a warm-up shirt that says “I Can’t Breathe” in protest of the grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer responsible for Eric Garner’s death, professional athletes are finally starting to become political activists, right? Wrong. It’s important to understand the distinction between a political statement and political activism when analyzing the actions of professional athletes.
A political statement is a single effort to promote political change that doesn’t necessarily mean the person has a long-term commitment to the cause. Political activism, on the other hand, consists of constant efforts to advocate political change over the long-term. While any political involvement by professional athletes is great, I argue that these particular instances are political statements instead of political activism.
In Where Are the Jocks for Justice? Kelly Candaele and Peter Dreier give examples of both political statements and political activists. When Steve Nash wore a shirt that said “NO WAR. SHOOT FOR PEACE”, he was making a political statement because he was simply speaking his mind about an issue. In contrast, Adonal Foyle is a political activist because of his grassroots group called Democracy Matters that educates young people about politics and works to increase political involvement. The difference between Nash and Foyle is their commitment to their cause. While Nash only shared his opinion on one occasion, Foyle is steadfast to his program in the long run. Another example of a political activist that the article mentions is Muhammad Ali. Because of Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War, he refused to join the army and was sentenced to five years in prison (he eventually won an appeal in court and didn’t serve any time). Ali’s protest lasted longer than just one instance, and he remained unwavering in his beliefs despite the consequences, which qualifies him as a political activist.
Both the St. Louis Rams players and Derrick Rose’s protests greatly resemble Nash’s protest. When the Rams players held their hands up in protest of the Michael Brown case and joined Derrick Rose in writing “I Can’t Breathe” on their equipment, they were simply engaging in a political statement just like Nash. There is no evidence that these players were continually involved in political movements over time, which means they can’t be considered political activists.
As I was reading Where Are the Jocks for Justice? I tried to think about contemporary athletes who Candaele and Dreier would recognize as political activists. Chris Kluwe, the ex-punter for the Minnesota Vikings, immediately came to mind. After playing for the team for 8 seasons, Kluwe believes his contract was terminated because of his activism for gay rights. Kluwe explained the story of his release in his essay titled I Was An NFL Player Until I Was Fired By Two Cowards And A Bigot. In this essay, Kluwe provides a timeline of the 2012 NFL season and outlines the sequence of events leading up to his departure from the Vikings. Candaele and Dreier would commend Kluwe on his constant support of gay rights despite his coaches’ attempts to silence him. Instead of staying quiet in order to protect his job security, he did what he thought was right even though there were consequences for his actions. His story demonstrates his sacrifice for his beliefs, something not many professional athletes would do. While I don’t question the St. Louis Rams players and Derrick Rose’s support for the “Hands up. Don’t Shoot!” and “I Can’t Breathe” movements, I doubt they would be willing to give up their careers as professional athletes as a result of their political beliefs like Kluwe did. In fact, I think most professional athletes would rather stay quiet than lose their job. Chris Kluwe is an exception, which makes him a true political activist.
There is a certain level of criticism that all professional athletes endure as they become politically involved. The athlete’s response to this criticism is what determines if he or she is a political activist or is just making a political statement. In Where Are the Jocks for Justice? Candaele and Dreier use Tiger Woods as an example of a professional athlete who stopped sharing his political beliefs after making one political statement. After Woods was featured in a Nike commercial that focused on racism in golf, he was under such heavy scrutiny from the media that he has been silent about political issues ever since. Because Woods didn’t overcome the criticism and continue to speak up about racism in sports, he never became a political activist. It’s too soon to determine whether the Rams players and Rose will follow Woods’ example and give in to the criticism or care enough about their political beliefs to continue to support their cause like Kluwe. It all depends on the degree to which these athletes are committed to their political movements. When the attention surrounding these recent movements eventually dies down, I anticipate they will stop making political statements.