Athletes Voice Dissent with New Administration

Jack Brewster, Columnist

Donald Trump’s controversial executive orders — most notably his refugee and majority Muslim-country-travel ban imposed Jan. 27 — have incited protests from all corners of the country and from every race, gender and religion. Hollywood and Broadway stars, executives of major corporations and countless politicians on both sides of the aisle have already been highly critical of Trump’s actions early in his presidency. A growing number of athletes have also begun speaking out against Trump during the election, persistently dissenting during the first days of his presidency.

Recently, more and more professional athletes have worked to inspire social change both on and off the field. If dissent among athletes continues to increase, they can become a mobilizing force for those opposed to Trump — but they will be perceived as part of the establishment by those who support the president.

Athletes have largely refrained from using their influence to enact political change for a host of reasons. Some fear they will lose their jobs or their starting spots if they speak up. In some cases, this fear is not unwarranted. After Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, they were expelled from the Olympic Games by the International Olympic Committee.

Muhammad Ali suffered a similar, but much harsher fate, when he refused to enlist during the Vietnam War, citing his Muslim faith. The boxer — who many call the greatest of all time — was stripped of his heavyweight title, banned from boxing in the United States for three years and was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison after he refused to enlist — although he stayed out of prison on an appeal, eventually winning the case in the Supreme Court.

When athletes stand up for political issues, they also risk losing money and endorsements. In 1990, Michael Jordan was asked to support Harvey Gantt, an African-American Democrat who was running for U.S. Senate. Jordan turned down the offer, pointing out that Republicans, just like Democrats, buy his sneakers.

But in recent years, it seems that athletes have begun finding their footing in political activism. Black Lives Matter and the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police have prompted various demonstrations across the sports world. This NFL football season, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the National Anthem to protest the treatment of African Americans in the U.S. Other NFL players followed suit.

In 2012, LeBron James and his Miami Heat teammates, as well as other players in the NBA, wore hoodies to protest of the killing of Trayvon Martin. And in 2014, the Brooklyn Nets, along with LeBron and several other NBA players, protested the killing of Eric Garner by wearing shirts that read, “I can’t breathe.”

The primary source of the uptick in athletes’ political activism is difficult to pinpoint. However, there are a few clues. The sports world could simply be mirroring the increase in protests happening all over the country during the past few years. Athletes also make much more money, giving them a greater sense of security and the ability to enact change with their wallets. Kaepernick, for example, donated $1 million to communities in need last year to help with racial inequality.

By protesting Trump though, athletes will be in relatively unchartered territory. Throughout sports history, the president has always been an integral part of the professional sports experience. Ever since President William Howard Taft threw the first pitch from the stadium stands in 1910, most presidents have ushered in the Major League Baseball season with a ceremonial first pitch. President Obama and many other presidents before him have routinely invited championship teams to the White House. George W. Bush was a part owner of the Texas Rangers before he became president. His dad, George H.W. Bush, played baseball at Yale University. President Ronald Reagan played football at Eureka College. In a sense, sports and the presidency go hand in hand.

But the more athletes who protest Trump, the larger the risk of being subjected to the same attacks Hollywood has experienced. When actors have voiced disapproval of Trump, they have often been ridiculed by the president. When Meryl Streep delivered a speech criticizing Trump a few weeks ago at the Golden Globes, the president lashed out at her on Twitter. Trump also lambasted Alec Baldwin for his Saturday Night Live impersonations on Twitter. Trump and a large portion of his base glorify the fact that Hollywood is largely against them because it fits into the anti-establishment theme: They are the anti-establishment against the rich Hollywood actors. Athletes, many of them wealthy and famous themselves, could suffer the same fate.

But athletes can also become powerful activists. As we’ve seen with past protests, when athletes speak out, their words carry significant weight. Platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, along with the large crowds at games, there’s a great potential for broad audiences. They can also use their huge salaries to help support charities and programs that combat Trump’s policies.

After Trump issued his immigration ban Jan. 27, several athletes took to social media to voice their outrage. Brooklyn Nets point guard Jeremy Lin and NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. tweeted statements in support of immigrants. Ronda Rousey, a professional MMA fighter, also posted a political cartoon on Instagram of the Statue of Liberty where a painter wrote “offer may vary” at the base of the statue.

As Trump continues to enact controversial changes, dissent in the sports world could increase beyond social media. Long a relatively dormant activist force, the roles of athletes off the field are changing.