Politics, protest and the modern-day athlete

Much has been said and written about the ongoing civil rights protests by professional athletes during the playing of our national anthem.

“Sports should be a safe zone from politics and social issues,” critics have cried. “I simply want to watch the games and not be assaulted with social commentary.”

While there are many things about sport in America that are out of whack, its power and potential to advance civil and human rights issues is not one of them. Sports’ fundamental values of fair play and equal opportunity parallel the fundamental values and principles of civil and human rights. The potential to highlight and advance these values is one of sports’ most valuable societal benefits.

Every day, sport demonstrates the power and potential of equal opportunity with athletes of all backgrounds, races and beliefs pushing differences aside to work toward a common goal.

There is nothing more American.

That said, you can’t laud sports’ power to advance a particular cause or civil right when the issue is one you believe in, but then insist that sports be “value-free” when the cause or civil right being advocated is one you may not necessarily support.

You can’t have it both ways. A civil right is a civil right. And the fact is, using sports as a platform to highlight civil and human rights issues is as much a part of sports as the touchdown, home run or slam dunk. That’s not going to change.

Here is another reality.

We, as a society, have built the platform and created the environment for athletes to advocate for these issues. We cheer them on; we breathlessly follow their Twitter accounts; we purchase and wear their jerseys; we hold them up as “role models” for our children, and we place them on pedestals to worship. As a result, they have accumulated not only wealth but also visibility and tremendous influence in our society. To think they won’t ever use that platform is naive.

So the question for the athlete becomes, “What do I do with that visibility, power and influence?”

In the end, that’s a personal choice. Athletes can choose to use their celebrity and societal influence “capital” to sell more products to fatten their wallets or they can use it to highlight an issue or cause important to them, knowing full well that doing so may, in fact, lighten their wallets.

As for whether it is appropriate to protest during the national anthem at a sporting event, that is a valid question worthy of debate with no simple answer.

In all fairness, these athletes have repeatedly insisted that their actions are meant specifically to bring attention to the fact that a large number of unarmed black people are being brutalized and killed by police. We should take them at their word.

For black athletes, this issue of police brutality is all too real. They know that the fame and fortune that accrue to them as professional athletes offer no protection against the possibility of being subject to an unjust judicial system or being shot during a “routine” traffic stop.

That’s about as real as it gets.

It has been others, many with a politically motivated agenda, who have twisted the athletes’ intentions to make them about disrespecting the flag and our military.

I’d caution against judging these athletes without walking a mile in their shoes. To cast them as simply overpaid and coddled jocks who should have no thoughts or purpose other than to entertain us is demeaning and minimizes the very real issues they face and are highlighting.

Far from being coddled and acting like entitled children, they are risking their livelihood and careers to influence social change, often at a steep price. Ask Colin Kaepernick, who has clearly been blackballed by the NFL. Or consider Muhammad Ali, who was jailed and lost several prime years of his career for his public stance on civil rights and against the Vietnam War.

These are difficult, explosive and complicated issues with answers that cannot be covered in a tweet. Amid all of the recriminations and heated dialogue, we should at least respect the courage and conviction that it takes to stand up for what you believe in, even in the face of harsh public backlash. That is a lesson we all should heed.

At the same time, we should celebrate the freedom America provides in allowing athletes, or anyone else, to speak truth to power. That is what makes America great.

So feel free to boycott the NFL. But don’t expect sports to be a safe zone from highlighting civil and human rights issues. It’s part of the very DNA of sports.

And that’s a good thing.

John Gerdy is a former All-American and professional athlete who has written several books on the role of sport in our schools and society. His website: JohnGerdy.com