The Unfortunate Absence of Activism in Sports

He sat in his room for hours each day with his mind racing, awaiting a mere phone call. The phone never rang. Instead, he was met with the backs of the entire league. Though he was fresh off of an NBA title, Craig Hodges was waived by the two-time world champion Chicago Bulls and failed to make contact with any of the 29 teams in the league.

Hodges’s body of work embodies the ideal role player of the NBA, averaging 8.5 points a game as a three-point shooting specialist. He thrived as the wing in the shadow of none other than the basketball deity himself, Michael Jordan, yet he found himself out of the league by his tenth year at the young age of31. The Bulls organization argued that Hodges had become decrepit and sluggish with age, but as someone who specializes in retaining his position behind the arc in the corner, waiting for Jordan to pass him the ball, physicality really could not have been a valid basis for waiving him.

Craig Hodges (left) and Michael Jordan (right)

Hodges is one of the few athletes to have looked past the scope of the game, using his heavily influential platform to promote awareness on social issues. Hodges’s valiant request of both Jordan and Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers to boycott Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals in protest of the infamous brutal beating of Rodney King (which the superstars considered too extreme of a protest) really highlights the issue with activism in sports: people only pay mind to superstars. Witnessing the indifference displayed by the globally influential Jordan only augmented his frustration. A month before his exit from the NBA, Hodges publicly chastised MJ for “Bailing Out.”

Amongst a myriad of controversial comments, teams began to repudiate the idea of signing Hodges, viewing him as a “distraction”; Hodges later filed a $40 million lawsuit against the then 29 NBA teams, claiming they blackmailed him with his association with contentious leader Louis Farrakhan.

“Leadership in America is the athletes and entertainers. That’s why I feel I have to start speaking out.”
— Craig Hodges

Twenty-five enduring years, replete with various racial tensions and protests have passed, yet America finds itself in an identical position. Even as activism becomes more prominent in the world of sports, Collin Kaepernick meets the same cold shoulders Hodges nearly three decades ago.

Kaepernick’s likeness took a tumultuous turn during last year’s NFL preseason in mid August when he peacefully took a knee during the national anthem. Kaepernick is not the first American athlete to snub the flag; Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (formerly Chris Jackson) of the Denver Nuggets began to question his observation of the American flag after he converted to the Islamic faith. NBA commissioner David Stern then issued him a one game suspension, but Abdul-Rauf continued his protest. Unfortunately, the 28-year-old fell into the same obscurity that Hodges faced.

Kaepernick later explained in a press conference that he would not “stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color." Despite the seemingly painless stand (or rather, knee) against social injustices, millions across the country took exception to his actions. Kaepernick’s actions elicited polarizing stances; some argued that raising social awareness does not constitute disrespecting the flag, while others commended the idea of him abiding by his beliefs. However malicious sports teams owners’ treatment of Hodges (and Abdul-Rauf) and Kaepernick may be, one glaring difference signifies hope: other players followed Colin and his protest.

The list contains marquee names, such as Marcus Peters, Arian Foster, Brandon Marshall, Kenny Stills, Martellus Bennett, and Devin McCourty who all participated by kneeling and throwing their symbolically powerful fist in the air.

Martellus Bennett (left) and Devin McCourty (right) raise their fists before a September 11 game

In spite of the inspiring cooperation, the effect of the protest has been substantially diluted by NFL owners’ efforts to mitigate the “distractions.” The most decorated player on the list, Brandon Marshall, began to rapidly lose his endorsements. Repercussions like these likely halted the protests from reaching superstars. Jordan basked in endorsements, from Nike to McDonalds to even Warner Bros.; he feared losing millions at a time when activism was not normalized.

“Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
— Michael Jordan, 1990

To say the Kaepernick protest was ineffective in achieving its purpose would be inconclusive to say the least, but it definitely could have used some more star-power. Most of the names partaking in the protest are barely Pro-Bowlers, if at all.

Superstars have a profound impact on how the public (especially the youth) perceive issues. NBA icon Kyrie Irving recently shared his convictions on how “certain groups” flaunt the façade of a spherical earth. Irving launched a new wave of flat-earth conspiracists, with many of them aging from 11–14. Nick Gurol, a middle school teacher, conveys his frustration about how he is unable to veer his kids away from subscribing to Irving’s ideology. Whether they realize it or not, athletes serve as role models in society: kids venerate their daily heroes and it is time to utilize the platform to make an existential impact.

“How have I failed these kids so badly they think the Earth is flat just because a basketball player says it?”
— Nick Gurol

However passionate players may be about political topics, owners are constricting them from expressing themselves. Kaepernick, despite being a fully capable starting quarterback in the NFL, is struggling to find a role as a backup. This week, a report that Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Biscotti is reticent to sign Kaepernick surfaced; his hesitation can likely be attributed to his perceived disturbances.

The volatility of activist athletes’ job security has been heavily detrimental to the progress of equality in America. Sports impact lives beyond the hardwood and crucifying players for their legitimacy only diverts attention from where it really needs to be.