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Opinion: The politics of a podium — some things are bigger than sports

How athletics and activism intersect
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CORALS ZHENG/THE VARSITY
CORALS ZHENG/THE VARSITY

When you tell the stories of some of history’s legendary athletes, it’s hard to ignore their political contributions. You can’t speak of Muhammad Ali without mentioning his opposition to the Vietnam War — an opposition that cut his boxing career short.

But his actions were bigger than boxing, just like how when San Francisco 49ers football player Colin Kaepernick knelt in protest of police brutality during the national anthem, the moment was bigger than football. These are the actions that rouse statements like “Shut up and dribble” from those who demand that there be a boundary between sports and politics.

When you are placing athletes on a global stage, it should be expected that they use this platform to voice their opinions on polarizing political topics, no matter what stance they may take — some things are bigger than sports.

As protests for justice erupted in May following the tragic murder of George Floyd, among the loss of countless other Black lives, many rose to the occasion and used their platforms to raise awareness for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Faces from many major North American sports leagues — including the Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown, US tennis’ Coco Gauff, and the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s Israel Adesanya — marched in peaceful protests across the globe, following in the footsteps of the athletes before them who have spoken up in times of strife.

In late August, the Milwaukee Bucks took an unprecedented step in sports history by walking out of their playoff game against the Orlando Magic in protest of the brutal shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

In the days following, the NBA, as well as other major sports leagues in North America, cancelled games and joined the strike. In lieu of cancelling the season, the NBA decided to convert willing arenas into polling stations in the upcoming 2020 election.

In a U of T News article, Simon Darnell, an associate professor at U of T’s Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education, described the Bucks’ protest as the result of a shift toward player empowerment in recent years.

“I think there are several reasons for what is happening now,” Darnell said. “I think many athletes are less intimidated about speaking out than they used to be, and also have more control over their own messages and narratives when they want to express a political perspective.”

Darnell also went on to discuss the fact that although activism by athletes alone will not solve systemic racism, it is a great step in moving society toward ending racism.

The Bucks’ actions, among many others, have created an intensely political moment in sport, which is why it’s not surprising to see championship-winning squads boycott the annual White House tour, for example. Nor is it a shock to see NFL players kneel during the American national anthem, even in the presence of US Vice-President Mike Pence.

There cannot be sports without politics. You cannot create a podium in front of the world and expect those behind it to remain silent.

I was 11 years old when Trayvon Martin, a Black high school student in Florida, was shot. At the time I was as big of a LeBron James fan as anyone, which is why when I saw him speak out with the rest of the Miami Heat squad by posing with his hood up — just like Martin had that night — it helped me understand that athletes are human, just like us. They also carry a responsibility to speak out against injustice.

LeBron has been no stranger to protests either, as he was one of the first athletes — alongside Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, and the late Kobe Bryant — to don a shirt reading “I Can’t Breathe.” This statement went viral in 2014 after the death of Eric Garner, whose cries for help went unheard as he was held under a chokehold during an arrest, which led to his death.

Whether you find yourself on the court or cheering from the bleachers, you must understand that some things transcend sidelines. Moreover, it’s important to realize that these sports attract a large number of eyes, and thus, they create a platform for activism.

The NBA returned on July 30 at the new COVID-bubble campus in Florida’s Walt Disney World, with “Black Lives Matter” written at centre court. As viewers clamour to watch the sport they’ve missed for months, one can hope that this message resonates with audiences across the globe, continuing to pass on the message that athletes have been passing down from generation to generation.

Some things are bigger than sports.