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Should athletes be silent on social issues?

Should athletes be silent on social issues?

  • Whether or not athletes should speak out on social issues and politics is a complicated issue with many perspectives and opinions

  • Many athletes and sports figures have come under fire recently for voicing their opinions on political matters pertaining to foreign countries

  • Freedom of expression is important, but time and place are also important considerations

  • What’s right and what’s good for business are not always the same

7 Minute

Athletes have always used their platform to advocate for their beliefs – from iconic moments like the Black Power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, right up to recent history with Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem.

With the ease of communication in 2019, athletes don’t have to wear a black glove on an Olympic podium to have their voices heard - it can be on Twitter, on broadcast, or on their field/court of play.

Taking full advantage of this new reach, you have athletes like LeBron James who has created several platforms such as Uninterrupted and The Shop for athletes to speak honestly about cultural topics. LeBron most recently had California Governor Gavin Newsom as a guest on The Shop, where he signed CA-SB206 into law – on the show! Unheard of….

Governor Gavin Newsom sent a major message to the NCAA when he signed into law California's 'Fair Pay to Play Act' (SB206) last Friday September 27th on the set of HBO's The Shop, giving college athletes the ability to responsibly and fairly be paid for use of their name and likeness in the state of California.

Whether or not athletes should be neutral when it comes to social issues and politics is a heated debate with many sides and opinions. MKTG Canada’s Decoding research study informs us that 52% of Canadian Sports Fans believe that athletes should speak up on social issues, with 32% believing that athletes should support political candidates, while 42% are undecided on the topic. This indecisiveness is indicative of the varying perspectives sports fans have on the matter. MKTG has explored the subject on our blog previously, such as the debate of Equal Pay for Equal Play, and when we touched on Puma’s Reform Sneakers.

This time around, we sat down with the #HumansOfMKTG for their perspective on athletes speaking up about social issues, political activism and the role athletes have both professionally, and off the court or field. We approached this conversation by sharing recent examples of athletes social and political activism in pop culture.

After scoring a goal Bedoya used a field microphone to make a plea for change.

Serena Williams responded to a comment by Billie Jean King on the subject of whether or not she would stop fighting for equality in order to focus on playing tennis. She responded was that “the day I would stop fighting for people who look like you and me, is the day I am in my grave”. Another great example from recent times is when Alejandro Bedoya, an MLS player, grabbed the mic after scoring a goal to call out Congress in the wake of the Christchurch shootings, yelling “Hey Congress, do something now. End gun violence”. Bedoya has been a vocal advocate for gun reform, Tweeting earlier that legal actions need to be taken, and stricter gun laws enacted.

Both Williams and Bedoya are strong believers that they as athletes have a platform through which they can make a real impact.  Williams’ example speaks to her actions off the court, and Bedoya’s act was one on the field.

Many are of the opinion that there is nothing wrong with voicing an opinion that is for the better of the people, whether that is on or off the field. We asked the #HumansOfMKTG if they agree with this.

Justin H: I think it’s a genius move. When you do it off the field you’re relying on your existing fan base and whoever is watching. When you do it in the field of play you have broadcast, in arena, people who don’t even know the player, so everyone is forced to absorb what that person said. Often times the people speaking out won’t be heard by those who need to hear it.

Stefania: The stunt also brings impact. It’s also a matter of timing, and the influence you have on others. Bedoya is team captain so he has a responsibility to speak out for his team and in the right moments as a leader.

Ryan: Professional sports provides a platform unlike many things in this world, it is a platform that so many people are invested in no matter what their allegiances are. If there is a growing problem such as gun violence, racism, etc., I think that it can inspire change and become a positive use of an athlete’s voice. It brings a topic to the forefront and I think should be encouraged when an athlete takes a stand.

Soteroff: I’m going to draw a parallel to Colin Kaepernick. He could have done an article in the Players’ Tribune or something but that runs the risk of someone reading the headline who might not agree, or might not read the article. Kaepernick protesting during the anthem, and similar to Bedoya’s act, it forces people to interact with it and have an opinion. I think it has a likelihood, though, of not getting a chance to elaborate on your opinion. Overall, it’s an extremely powerful thing and I think athletes should use their platform. But if they focus on the message and less the medium, their intentions can sometimes get washed out.

Justin F: I understand why some parties are mad at Bedoya. Privately and through your own channels you should be allowed speak your mind, but on a TV network that pays a lot of money for rights to air programming that appeals to people of varying viewpoints, it’s an interesting conversation…I don’t think people would complain if he said the same thing on Instagram live, it’s the act of hijacking a high visibility situation to further your own personal views. I’m not saying that I disagree with the point that Bedoya was making, I’m just saying the way he chose to express it might make parties upset

Imagine if one of us stole the mic up on stage at a company event to speak about the organization or a political view?

Katherine: The office comparison makes speaking out in field much less palatable, if I am to play devil’s advocate. If you consider the field as their office, you wouldn’t get up in the middle of an event and voice your political views because it’s your place of work. I can see why people might have issues with people “voicing their political opinions at work”, but that said, I am a believer that athletes and people with the power to positively influence the masses should do so.

Neal: Hijacking a system that is built for viewership and the ecosystem that is the sports business is one thing. I don’t know what their contracts are like but I think that might be clearly specified in their contracts. That said, because publishing is less important in recent years and anyone can get out a message through their own channels, you can broadcast to as big an audience as will pay attention to you, so it’s different than back in the day where you had to take advantage of that time-span on the field in order to have your voice heard outside of the field.

Justin F: Thinking of this example specifically, no one would be criticizing Bedoya if he used his own channels, but no one would be talking about it. LeBron can do that, but if you aren’t a global superstar, something like this might be your only way to really reach anyone.

Jordan: I like the comparison to a workplace. These people have a passion about something and want to share it. I wonder what the comparable is for me? If I wanted to say something that passionately, what could I possibly do? I don’t think I could do that. I feel like there’s lots of people that are passionate about something but don’t have an opportunity to say something like that. Athletes like Bedoya are seizing the most popular thing that they can do in that moment. If you’re so passionate about something and you have the opportunity to do it, why wouldn’t you?

Neal: What if you hijacked our social accounts, Katherine? Is that an equivalent?

Katherine: I would probably get in trouble for that! But Bedoya’s argument was that it’s for the good of the people and you aren’t a good person if you don’t agree something should be done about it. so I definitely think there is a balance. If I were to post an opinion that was for the good of the people on MKTG’s social channels, whether or not I think it’s for the good of the people, I would be weighing the fact that there might be repercussions from my organization for my actions. But if I feel strongly enough about the issue, then it’s worth the disciplinary consequences. Maybe that’s what Bedoya was thinking.

"Keep the political commentary to yourself, or as someone once said, shut up and dribble," Fox News host Laura Ingraham said, addressing LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

Katherine: Race is a huge variable when it comes to the media and opposition to athletes speaking out especially when they are people of colour. When people of colour voice an opinion they often get told they are uneducated and should focus on their sport. Another example I think of is after Eric Garner was murdered, several NBA players wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts on the court, nodding to the words Garner uttered before he was suffocated to death by an arresting officer. This is a form of silent protest that I think is great because I don’t think this impedes on the “court of play” argument. It’s a t-shirt, and along the lines of Beodya, it’s a conversation that is for the good of the people, also back to Jordan’s point, it’s something that so many NBA players care about and resonate with. Wearing the words of a movement on a shirt.

Soteroff: I think that LeBron is more qualified to speak on issues than many college graduates in the US. Another example that stood out for me is Chris Long, the first white player to kneel in solidarity with the NFL. The last two seasons he donated his salaries to social justice causes and didn’t receive nearly as much backlash as players of colour.

What do you all think about a silent protest in game?

Neal: You’ve got people wearing pink socks in a game to support cancer efforts, because everyone supports fighting cancer. But when its something more divisive… like protesting police brutality is for some reason… there’s a divide on whether athletes should have a voice. If we are going to crack down on people’s ability to voice one then we should crack down on all of them. Because one of them is politically charged, doesn’t make it less valuable. It’s definitely complicated.

Justin F: Leagues ideally don’t want players to alienate fans. They want them to play the game and entertain fans regardless of their views. Infusion of too many politics into the discourse could be financially risky for leagues that appeals to such huge swaths of the population. In a way, I think they are just looking to protect their money-making abilities [edit: this blog was super timely given the turbulence between China and the NBA defending Daryl Morey’s freedom of expression, despite the economical repercussions].

Katherine: I think it’s important for leagues and brands to support what matters to their athletes/employees. A great example of that is when the Sixers distributed #FreeMeek T-shirts in-game.

Jordan: Politics in general just become too polarizing. My opinion is that athletes should use every piece of every platform that they have to talk about issues they care about.

Neal: From a sponsorship perspective, brands need to select athletes not just on their performance, but on their values. Make sure their beliefs align with your company’s and you allow them to voice those opinions they have.

Jordan: It’s an interesting thought to evaluate someone on their beliefs and if they align with yours because you’ll never be able to silence them. It might make sponsorships less risky if hypothetically sponsors were to evaluate athletes based on their beliefs as well. 

Katherine: When we think about sponsors, support of Kaepernick wasn’t bad for Nike’s business because supporting Kaepernick is aligned with their business and values. If you look through it through this lens, of course this will be a success. Nike’s stock rose 9% in the aftermath of the ad, despite right-wingers burning their Nikes. They chose the 30th anniversary of Just Do It to support Kap, arguably one of their most important campaigns, clearly everything ladders up so perfectly. So it wasn’t even a risk in my opinion.

Ryan: To go back to the question. I don’t see a time where athletes ever go silent.

Katherine: It’s a risk to the athletes but if they believe in it enough then it’s worth it for them. If we allow athletes to have freedom of speech then we should allow all opinions but there is a difference between free speech and hate speech.

Neal: If you sponsor an athlete, you’re getting the whole package. Their performance and their opinions. If you don’t want to run this risk and just want to tie yourself to the passions that people have the sport, sponsor a league instead.

We certainly agree that all players should be vocal of their opinions and what they are passionate about. We believe in freedom of speech, and think that athletes should use their platforms for good.  Can we think of any anomalies?

Soteroff: Tom Brady could use his platform for good but has chosen to stay out of it. He’s chosen to be silent and focus on football. Another example that comes to mind is Tim Thomas who refused to go to the White House when Obama was president, and supported Chick-Fil-A – he’s been blackballed by sponsors. Generally I think that when athletes are shunned by sponsors and the public its because they have less progressive views that can often be hateful. When athletes try to speak on issues they’re generally more inclusive, so we tend to lean more left.

Justin H: I think it can hurt the athlete to endorse a political candidate. For example, LeBron opening a school is one statement, but supporting a political candidate, could be going too far because then you’re saying you support the platform and looks like you’re aligning with a figure. I think it’s more beneficial to support a cause you believe in without directly supporting a candidate. It will speak to yourself without having to get into political talk.

Stefania: I love the example of Body Armour and their support of Meghan Rapinoe [edit: read our blog on equal pay for equal play here]. The ad recreates her speech towards the President so this ad represents their support for her and her speaking out on what she believes in.

Soteroff: I have another great example too, on the subject of equal pay, after the world cup Budweiser also put out an ad about equal pay for the support that women showed. We’ve done a great job supporting them but now that they’re back we have to show the same level of support. I think Budweiser is a good example of a brand that supports their athletes on and off the court.

What about when it comes to senior management in companies? Should they remain neutral?

Katherine: We look at Adam Silver who changed the name of owner to governor because the name didn’t sit well with its players, and listened to them and made a change that was important to them. We saw the unfortunate aftermath recently of what happened when a senior management Tweeted something that offended a foreign government. Won’t get into that now, but it’s another interesting conversation.

Soteroff: I think the Jordan thing [edit: referring to Michael Jordan’s alleged quote] was probably during a time when that sort of thing was more accepted and players weren’t looked at as role models. These people who are in positions of power its taken some time for people to understand the political climate of the day. And are not in tune with the interests of the day. A lack of understanding of what your consumer-base cares about.

In March 1996 NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem calling the American flag "a symbol of oppression, of tyranny".

Justin H: I’d love to share another example of an athlete speaking up on a social issue before we wrap it up. Kaepernick is such an important conversation nowadays so I want to pay homage to the first athlete to not stand for the anthem. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, taking it back to 1996, he was a coveted draft pick. One of his best seasons he decided to not stand for the national anthem in protest of oppression of racism in the country. So it had lots of backlash. In a world without social media, the media had a bad perspective of it. He was suspended and told if he wanted to stay in the league he had to stand. The same year, despite playing very well, he got traded, then became a FA and went unsigned. So there’s just lots of parallels here between this and Kaepernick. He paved the way and was seen as a bad guy because there was no way for him to drum support to create his own narrative.

Soteroff: It’s crazy that times are different but the outcome is still the same, Kaepernick is still out of a job.

Justin H: The last example I’d like to share is the story of Kathrine Switzer who ran in the Boston Marathon despite women not being allowed to participate. She ran anyway, was nearly tackled by a race official.

All in all – the #HumansOfMKTG believe that athletes should speak out on social issues, especially when it comes to issues they are incredibly passionate about. Athletes have a platform they can leverage to bring about positive change, and through some of the examples above, we can see that they are often able to bring about that change, or at least drive awareness around a given topic.

This Blog was powered by MKTG’s Decoding Canada research study.
here to download the report or reach out at [email protected].


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