The Minnesota Lynx and New York Liberty donned pregame t-shirts proclaiming support for Black Lives Matter, lives lost recently to police brutality, and the lives lost in Dallas. Then, on Wednesday, NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James opened the ESPY Awards with a call-to-action aimed at their peers, challenging themselves and fellow professional athletes to use their resources to create meaningful change in light of racial injustices. Those events were a refreshing deviation from the general normalcy that is athletes being silent on political and social issues.
With that being said, I don’t want to generalize. I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that there are athletes today who understand that they have a magnified voice and who utilize their power to be vocal for a stance they believe in. The problem for me arises, however, when some of those athletes appear vocal once in a blue moon or straddle the border on issues that require conclusive stances. It pains me to see opportunity-filled platforms underutilized, deflected for irrelevant uses, or — worst of all — completely ignored by athletes wielding those powerful voices. It’s a waste of a chance to legitimately make a difference outside of their sporting careers.
That truth is what makes the silent demonstrations by WNBA teams so important, and that is what makes the efforts of Anthony, Paul, James and Wade stand out. In a time when professional athletes have more resources and more open outlets than ever before in history, consistent and widespread engagement is largely devoid from many athletes. That deficit emphasizes the need for athletes who genuinely want to use their voice to challenge systems and buck the silence that has fogged societal conversations in public sports circles.
Those athletes have a responsibility to educate themselves and educate others, as well as encourage their peers to step up to the plate as well. Or, as LeBron James put it:
“I know tonight we’re honoring Muhammad Ali. The GOAT. But to do his legacy any justice, let’s use this moment as a call to action for all professional athletes to educate ourselves. … Speak up. Use our influence. And renounce all violence,” said James, during the ESPY's speech. “And most importantly, go back to our communities, invest our time, our resources, help rebuild them, help strengthen them, help change them.”
James and his group, as well as the WNBA athletes, deserve recognition and appreciation for what they’ve been doing to contribute to (specifically in this case) the conversation about the ongoing struggle of racial injustice in America. But as James himself alluded in his speech, contributions can’t just be one and done. Recent vocalness from athletes have to be looked at as only the beginning, as change won’t occur if individuals check out after one productive occasion.
Furthermore, mere conversation shouldn’t be the ceiling of contributions. As James stated, it’s time for people with platforms to spark tangible change by starting with local efforts. For example, James’ foundation and the University of Akron will fully cover the tuition of kids who complete the foundation’s I Promise program in James’ hometown of Akron. Sure, it might not be as strong as Ali’s Vietnam War stance and it might not be as disruptive as John Carlos’ black power fist in 1968, but it is an example of promising action by James, one of society’s most well-known and recognizable figures.
Similarly, the WNBA demonstrations were not as loud as those done by Ali and Carlos, but the concept of athletes speaking out should not take on any specific formulas. In the case of the New York Liberty, they presented a message to the public by using their platform, proving their genuine interest in our nation’s racial struggle.
“For us, collectively as a group,” said Liberty veteran Swin Cash about the team’s t-shirt demonstration, “we decided this is something that we needed to do, wanted to do, and do it here today in New York.”
As an example of how athletes can maintain consistency on pressing issues, in the aftermath of the initial demonstration, the Liberty players decided that throughout the rest of the season they will wear all-black warmup shirts instead of the customary team-branded warmup uniforms. As Liberty guard Tanisha Wright said, it’s a way to keep the discussion from fading.
“We didn't want the last time to be the only stance that we make,” Wright said. “It's easy to come out and make a stance one time. People will talk about it that one time and then they will forget about it. We don't want this conversation to be forgotten about.”
Clearly, positive signs of change do, indeed, exist in athletes. Today’s professional athletes are more visible and more accessible in our society than any generation of athletes before, and so more athletes need to be consistently utilizing their platforms for productive change rather than ignoring their potential. Athletes carry a powerful voice in society that should not be deflected or misguided, but instead cultivated and harnessed. But, we need more uniform outreach from athletes who have ways to do so.
The steps taken by the Minnesota Lynx and New York Liberty, in addition to the speech from Anthony, Paul, Wade and James, are all positive and crucial steps towards athlete vocalness. This past week gives me hope that we will actually begin to see more constant outreach by those with platforms and voices. Let’s look at these demonstrations as just a start for consistent, political and social engagement from athletes.