Athletic Individuality

In lecture this week, we discussed the modern state of advocacy in professional athletics. We learned of Olympic athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith who, in the summer 1968, decided to raise their fists during the national anthem in an act of solidarity for the black power movement. We also learned of the incredible individuality of Jesse Owens as he chose to compete in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Germany despite the tense racial atmosphere of the time. Many consider these two instances to be the defining moments in the history of political activism in sports, though, since, many examples of advocacy in sport have taken place.

Above, an image of the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany.
Above, an image from the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

As a follow up assignment to the lecture material, we were instructed to read “Where are the Jocks for Justice,” by Kelly Candaele and Peter Drier. This text argued that modern day athletes lack the same feeling of individualism held by athletes like Owens, Carlos and Smith (among many others). She attributed much of the silence among professional athletes to the involvement of unions and corporate sponsorship. College athletes, however, are not subjected to the same external pressure as professional athletes, and are thusly afforded greater freedom when sharing their views.

Such freedom was manifested in Evanston, Illinois, when earlier this year, the Northwestern Football team made a controversial request to the National Labor Relations Board seeking unionization. The athletes felt as though their role in collegiate athletics resembled that of employed professionals, making them eligible for union-employee benefits. While the University at large and the team’s head coach strongly opposed such efforts, the players ultimately decided that their rights and best interests would be better served under the management of the structure provided by labor organizations. In a statement offered by the University, it claimed that presence of unions would without questions “… add to tension in terms of creating an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ feeling between players.” This display of advocacy serves as a key example in explaining the fearlessness felt by college athletes.

Above, a picture of the University of Missouri's star defensive end, Michael Sam. Sam came out as gay in 2013.
Above, a picture of the University of Missouri’s star defensive end, Michael Sam. Sam came out as gay in 2013.

A similar testament to the individuality felt by college players existed at the University of Missouri. At the end of his final season playing for the football team in 2013, Michael Sam, the star defensive end, came out as homosexual. Sam had long been open about his sexual orientation with his team, but chose not to expose his secret with the public until after his last game as a college football player. As was later stated by the player’s family, Sam deliberately decided to announce his identity as a homosexual man in college because he felt, once in the NFL, outside pressure would prevent him from displaying such transparency. Among many other college athletes, Sam took advantage of his uncompromised independence and openly advocated for a cause he felt deserved increased attention.

While this type of individual advocacy doesn’t often find its way to the professional sports sphere—as made clear in “Where are the Jocks for Justice”—it’s not uncommon for professional athletes to express their views through social media. After Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, hundreds of professional athletes advocated for racial equality. NBA superstars LeBron James and Kevin Durant made clear that meaningless brutality directed towards young African American individuals should not be tolerated. Similarly, in recent days, many star athletes have flocked to Twitter and Facebook to voice their views on the controversial decision not to indict Darren Wilson (the police officer responsible for Mike Brown’s death). In each of these instances, it seems social media offered an easy escape route for advocacy. Rather than taking action and actively deciding to continue the cause for racial equality, the Internet provided a viable avenue for laziness.

Above, a riot in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin in  2012.
Above, a riot in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012.

Personally, I think so much of what makes athletic competition (collegiate and professional) valuable is the scale of viewership it entices. Professional athletes should be held accountable for speaking their voices, no matter the consequence, for they have the opportunity to set an example for millions of onlookers. With the ever increasing ease of relying on others to conceive our own opinions, those in the national spotlight should be held responsible for vocalizing and acting upon their views. Social media is certainly an effective form of advocacy, but more must be done to make change.