Invisible lines: Fostering Activism in sports JoAnne, Madison, Tanner, Zach

Though it's a widely held opinion that politics and sports shouldn't mix, they do, and often the stars of the playing field also raise their voices in activism on issues important to them. However, this activism seems more prevalent in some sports than others. Muhammad Ali spoke out as a boxer, but there are no famous swimmers taking a stand on political issues. There must be factors within some sports that foster activism more than others.

Why do some sports lend themselves more to activism than others?

We've explored four reasons:

  • Race
  • Gender
  • Team mentality vs. Individualism
  • Regulations within the league or association

Does Race affect activism in sports?

let's take a look...

“While African Americans are disproportionately represented in sports such as basketball, football, track and boxing, it should be noted that they are underrepresented in activities such as lacrosse, soccer, hockey, swimming, tennis, golf, and skating.”

source

How about some statistics?

Does activism appear more prominent or less prominent in these sports? How does the racial make up contribute to that activism?

Does gender affect activism in sports?

Well, we certainly think so. Look at women such as,

Billie Jean King,

Venus Williams,

and Carli Lloyd.

They stand out as spokeswomen for equality, especially concerning equal pay. They are bold and outspoken, and events surrounding their activism get a lot of media attention.

These sports are popular, and have a diverse group of viewers (more viewers = more media attention).

"GIVEN THE VISIBILITY OF GENDER INEQUALITIES IN BUDGETS, SPORT OFFERINGS, SCHOLARSHIPS, PUBLICITY, AND RECRUITMENT, WOMEN IN SPORT MAY BE MORE EASILY SENSITIZED TO THEIR DISADVANTAGED POSITION AND THUS READY TO ACTIVELY CHALLENGE SUCH INEQUALITIES." (Blinde, taub, and han)
"Sport participation was found to be empowering for women at the personal or individual level. Involvement in sport facilitated the development of qualities such as bodily competence, perceptions of a competent self, and the adoption of a proactive approach to life." (Blinde, Taub, and Han)

source

The involvement of women in sports has always been a story of activism

So let's look at an example: the WNBA

In 2014, the maximum salary paid to a WNBA player was $107,500

and the minimum salary paid to a NBA player was $490,180

Why, you may ask?

Perhaps because the NBA generates far more revenue, right?

Well yes, but when you take a look at the revenue earned from each team, and then how much of that revenue goes back to the team, you learn that the WNBA pays players approx. 33% of league revenue, while the NBA pays approx. 50%

source

That's almost a 20% difference

Basketball, currently, is in the spotlight for activism because of the gender inequality represented between the NBA and WNBA.

While tennis, for example, is less active because inequality isn't a prominent issue.

Activism comes from large inequality gaps between the genders in each sport

how does an individualistic vs a team mentality affect activism in sports?

The culture within a team or the way a certain game is played may also foster or discourage activism. Some sports--such as track and field, tennis, swimming, etc. are individual endeavors while others are team-centered.

Does the interdependence of team-centered sports support group activism? Or does it produce a hegemony that crushes out the opinion of those who feel differently?

WE STOPPED A "MAN ON THE STREET" AND ASKED FOR HER OPINION TO SEE WHAT THE GENERAL PUBLIC THINKS:

Kristine Point, BYU Undergraduate Student
My guess would be that if you’re from an individual sport, if you put yourself on the line with speaking out with activism I feel like the consequences are only on yourself. That you’re not like bringing the whole team into it. As opposed to football or soccer, I would hope those athletes recognize that when they speak out the whole team is going to be brought into it because people see it as a team sport.
I think that people who play team sports would be. . . more inclined [to be activists]. If it was me, if I had an issue that I cared about and I wanted to speak up about it, I’d probably ask my teammates. ‘Oh, would you guys back me up?’ or ‘Would you agree on this?’ Then kind of come out together on that issue or something like that.

Both basketball and football are team sports. Both are in the media spotlight. However, basketball players seem more likely to speak out.

Harry Edwards asked both OJ Simpson (football) and Lew Alcindor (basketball) to participate in the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Simpson refused and avoided activism his entire career, while Alcindor was willing to speak out about injustice.

O.J. Simpson (left) and Lew Alcindor (right), circa 1967.

Today, Lebron James frequently speaks out on social issues, and sometimes entire basketball teams unite in protest and activism. However, Colin Kaepernick is the only pro football player receiving media coverage for taking a stand on social issues, and the coverage is almost completely negative. For some reason, it seems more natural for basketball players to participate in activism than football players.

Left: LeBron James and the Miami Heat pose in hoodies to protest the Trayvon Martin shooting. Later, James and other teammates wore “I can’t breathe” t-shirts to practice to speak out for the Black Lives Matter movement. Right: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and teammate Eric Reid kneel in protest during the National Anthem before a game. Kaepernick’s protest earned him many titles, including “most disliked player in the NFL.”

Is the culture within a team or the nature of the game itself affecting how likely players are to be activists? Does a strong team-centered culture stifle activism?

It seems like football has a stronger team culture--where a player's value is only as part of the whole. Does basketball as a sport provide more opportunities for individual expression than football?

Both basketball and football are technically “team” sports, but which looks more natural?

football team culture

“If a player were to do his own thing in a sense, I think as a whole we would look at him differently. Yeah, we would still stand by him, but we’d want to dig deeper and see what’s actually going on. . . . Overall, I think it would kind of throw things off.”
I’M NOT ONE OF THOSE GUYS. I DON’T THINK I’D EVER DO THAT. . . . I GUESS YOU COULD CONSIDER [COLIN KAEPERNICK’S ACTIVISM] A DISTRACTION, ALTHOUGH IT MEANT SOMETHING TO HIM. I WOULDN’T WANT TO BRING THAT UPON THE TEAM AS WELL WITH SO MUCH MEDIA CIRCULATION AND ALL THAT STUFF. I DEFINITELY WOULD HAVE GONE ABOUT IT A DIFFERENT WAY.

It seems that in order to preserve team unity and not rock the boat, football players are actually less comfortable taking a stand and voicing their opinion--not for fear of their team, but out of concern for them. Regardless of the reason, however, hegemony within the team seems to be keeping football players quiet.

individualism in basketball

BYU Basketball players were unavailable for comment, but an article from the New Yorker provides insight into why basketball might foster more individualism:

"few sports serve as well as basketball as a vehicle for individual style. And, arguably, that began with a few mavericks defying accepted wisdom and scoring from the air."

When the jump-shot (and later the slam-dunk) began to be practiced by a few innovative players in basketball, the game took a turn toward personal exceptionalism within the boundaries of team play. Coaches, administrators and media initially decried the jump-shot, claiming that it emphasized solo play too much and threatened the sport's team integrity.

In 1976 the American Basketball Association introduced the first slam-dunk contest, showing the entertainment value that society was beginning to place on the slam-dunk (and individual basketball players in general). The move was pushing beyond a mere scoring technique and becoming a creative, almost artistic act.

"Despite the stress on technique, many coaches will concede that the most important factor in developing a dependable jump shot is not uniformity but consistency—essentially, faith in and allegiance to one’s personal style."

Today basketball players are analyzed according to their individual playing style on the court: artistic or driving, a weightless floater or a powerhouse. Within what is technically a team sport, each individual player's "voice"--their personal playing style--gets a lot of attention and appreciation. In theory, that public mindset may make it easier for basketball players to express individual opinions and viewpoints off the court as well.

How is activism affected by league regulations?

It's pretty obvious that some sports organizations tolerate more activism than others. Why? Might activism actually benefit sports clubs or leagues?

Most leagues have serious penalties for making statements on the field, so it seems fair to say that those in high places view activism as a risk.

Here's what League commissioners have to say:

Roger Goodell, NFL
As I've said before, I truly respect our players wanting to speak out and change the community. We don't live in a perfect society. We want them to use that voice. They're moving from protests to progress and trying to make things happen in the communities, and I admire that about our players [being] willing to do that.
Obviously, we want to respect people. We want to respect our differences. We want to reflect our flag and our country, and our players understand that. So I think where they're moving and how they're moving there is very productive, and we're going to encourage that.
Adam Silver, NBA
I understand there is an appropriate place for protest. I think our players also recognize that our fans are entitled to act in their own way, and that a protest from a player may result in a protest from a fan. And so, they have to put everything in context.
[Teams] want to be respectful of all their fans, and are mindful that when a line is crossed into what some fans will consider to be political speech, that some fans who are coming there to escape from politics may want to only focus on basketball.

So, the commissioners of leagues seem to be publicly supportive of activism, but what about privately? How do players feel about the way leagues manage activism?

Aaron Rodgers, Quarterback, Green Bay Packers

Reporters asked Aaron Rodgers whether NBA players were more free to express their opinions

One-hundred percent. And I think it starts with leadership. I think Adam Silver has done a good job promoting that type of environment. And I think some guys in the NFL are probably worried about repercussions on speaking their mind from the league.

Activism can be a boost for athletes, building legacies and attracting fans. However, for leagues, activism seems to be perceived as a risk. The NBA seems to feature more activism than the NFL because it's regulated more loosely.

conclusion

There are four factors that seem to impact player’s freedom to express themselves:

  • Leagues with more minority players tend to have more activism
  • Female leagues that feature pay disparity with men tend to be more active than those which don't
  • Sports that allow more individualism tend to have more activism than those that don't
  • Leagues with less regulation tend to allow more activism

In order to create a culture within sport that allows players to voice their concerns, we must be aware of these factors. These factors can also be applied outside of the sports world to society as a whole. If we want more activism and less repression, we must allow individualism and refrain from regulating free speech.

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