By Taylor Markey

The role of athletes in enacting social change, along with the underlying reasons for why people pay more attention when athletes speak out, was discussed March 8 at 6 p.m. during a panel conversation and Q&A.

Leadership & Community Service-Learning hosted “Athlete Activism and Social (In)justice: Sport and Racial Politics” in collaboration with the Physical Cultural Studies group and the Department of Kinesiology.

The event was a part of a “speaker series of engaging storytellers of social change” titled VOICES of Social Change.

Professor Kevin Blackistone, the panel moderator, kicked off the discussion by asking Damion Thomas, a sports curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, how deep the roots of athletic activism in the U.S. are because “there seems to be a belief that what we’re seeing now is something very new.”

“I think if you look at it historically, sports have always been tied to larger political, social and cultural issues,” Thomas said. “One of the things that’s fairly unique in the United States is that sports are so intimately tied to our educational institutions … So, this idea that sports and social issues go together are at the foundation of the sports system in the United States.”

Dave Zirin, The Nation’s sports correspondent, and an author, spoke on how the platforms for speaking out on social issues have changed, like the Miami Heat players’ response to the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012.

“Now, what did they do after they posed with their hoods over their heads?” Zirin said. “They didn’t call the lead columnist at the Miami Herald, they put it on social media and that’s another big shift that’s happened over the last six years or so is that athletes are able to — as one said to me — go around the filter and speak directly to their fans.”

Grant Farred, a Cornell University professor, questioned why athletes are not making other demands at every level of the sport. He said part of the answer is that they are implicated.

Farred brought up how they are worried about getting to the pros and once they get to the pros, they want to make sure they do not get cut,  using this university’s athletes as an example. He said to transcend identity and to consider the larger structural issues — “how we’re all implicated.”

Blackistone questioned why “we pay so much attention to athletes or people within the sports context who stand up … about something that we perceive as being unjust.” He brought up the protests at the University of Missouri over racial injustice on the campus.

“A grad student laid his life on the line, went on a hunger strike,” Blackistone said, “but it wasn’t until the football team said ‘we may not play on Saturday’ that everyone paid attention. Why is that?”

Ben Carrington, a professor at the University of Southern California, said the term “student-athlete” was “created by the NCAA precisely to avoid the student-athletes being defined as workers.”

The student-athletes realized they were a part of a “collective who has shared interests” that could effectively refuse to work, giving them power in instances like the University of Missouri, Carrington said.

Diane Roberts, a WUSA 9 sports anchor, and reporter said it was because of money.

“What does that say about that institution and about society that they didn’t do it because of societal or racial reasons but it was because of money?” Roberts said.

She said she was glad they used their collective power to cause change, but that it is a small change if the root of the problem is not addressed.

Anna Posbergh, a first-year Ph.D. student in the kinesiology physical cultural studies department that helped sponsor this event, expressed the importance of having events like this on college campuses.

“People in our age … they’re what’s gonna change things and they’re what’s getting this conversation going,” Posbergh said. “When you have events like this — with critical scholars who have engaged with this literature, who have been out in the field, who know what’s going on — when they speak about their experiences … you could hear the emotion in their voices … When people feel something, that’s when they make a change, and things need to change.”

Simon Shahinian, 25, from Potomac, Maryland, heard about this event from Farred, who was his professor at Cornell.

“It’s a great opportunity to encourage people to think more about these issues,” Shahinian said.

“It’s the kind of thing you can see on the news and have a passing thought about but then kind of forget about it. So, to hear it discussed more in-depth like this by people who devote their whole lives to think about these issues is a great way for you to kind of gain more insight on it.”

Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Colin Kaepernick’s Facebook page.


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