Athlete Activism in the Era of Social Media

We have long recognized the power of sport to create an environment and mindset for positive social change. Many great leaders like Nelson Mandela have used sport as a pathway to unite fractured communities, to empower youth, and to create peace in times of turmoil. While sport is undeniably big business, with all its scandals and excesses, the simple value of sport to create connection and open hearts and minds still remains. The power of sport also can be seen through the influence and impact of athletes at all levels of the game. Throughout history, athletes have held positions of high regard in our society. Some, like LeBron James, Serena Williams, Roger Federer, transcend sport and achieve celebrity status, with global ability to impact and influence. Others may have impact on a more local level, in high schools or colleges, youth groups or communities. Regardless of the sphere of influence, the opportunity exists to make a positive mark on society and change the world for the better.

During the 2018 NBA All-star Game, a television journalist told LeBron James to keep his political commentary to himself, and “shut up and dribble.” James responded with an Instagram post with the words “I am more than an Athlete,” and a measured but determined statement that generated the hashtag #wewillnotshutupanddribble...” The reaction to this exchange was swift and massive with heavyweights like NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, and legendary player Bill Russell, commending James on his leadership and positive activism. Of course on the other side of the dialogue were those claiming that James’ had overstepped, and that his sole purpose is to entertain.

Welcome to the world of activism in the Social Media Era. Swift reactions both positive and negative; bitter, and sometimes vulgar anonymous attacks, trending hashtags that become popular slogans and merchandise but most importantly, the ability to reach and mobilize hundreds of thousands of people in support of a cause. In the summer of 2013 three young women started the Black Lives Matter movement simply with a hashtag. The 2017 Women’s March on Washington was organized over a three-month period completely using social media. In February 2018 within one week of the tragic shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students organized the “Enough is Enough” student walkout protest.

Tangential to the social media explosion or even in tandem with it, one must also consider the severely polarized political climate in which we find ourselves. Activism is sometimes quickly politicized, as was seen with the reactions from the nation’s highest office on NFL player protests, and the call for activists to be fired, a variation of “shut up and dribble.” According to data gathered by the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), athlete activism is increasing at all levels. This next generation of athlete activists operating on these social media platforms is more socially conscious than previous generations. In 2018, as we recognize the 50th anniversary of the John Carlos and Tommie Smith Olympic podium protest, what has changed for athlete activists?

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