Rise of the Social Justice Athlete

What started off as a silent protest has evolved into anything but silent. Colin Kaepernick is the most recent athlete to cause a stir in the news cycle for speaking out on civil rights issues. It seems like every fan and outsider of sports has chimed in with an opinion, coming out as either for or against Kaepernick. He may be the sports star that has dominated headlines the past few days, but he’s not the first of 2016.

July will go down as the month where things shifted in the sports world. In reaction to the news of the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the NBA’s Carmelo Anthony got the ball rolling with an Instagram post. The social media post pushed the people to demand a change to the justice system, while also looking for unity in light of the grim news.

“Look I’ll even lead the charge,” Anthony stated on the post, and lead the charge he did.

Not long after, the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx joined the fight when they wore shirts to warm ups that said “Change starts with us. Justice & Accountability” on the front. The back of the shirts had Sterling and Castile’s names along with an emblem for the Dallas Police Department and “Black Lives Matter” across the bottom.

“This is a human issue, and we need to speak out for change together,” Lynx player Maya Moore said in a press conference that was later reported on CNN.

In response to their actions, four off-duty police officers that were working as security for that Lynx game walked off the job after taking offense to the shirts.

At the ESPY’s, ESPN’s award show for athletes, the NBA’s LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade, and Anthony kicked off the special standing front and center under low lights.

“We stand here tonight, accepting our role in uniting communities, to be the change we need to see,” Paul said that night.

A lot has happened in our Nation since the last time America had football on the television screen. Reflecting that was Colin Kaepernick, who would no longer be standing during the National Anthem.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way,” Kaepernick said after the game, according to nfl.com.

Athletes speaking out on social issues to controversy is no new ordeal. The late Muhammad Ali was notorious for his outspoken nature on the issues of his era. As recently as 2014, multiple professional teams or athletes wore shirts that said “I Can’t Breathe” in response to Eric Garner’s death. In the same year when members of the NFL’s then St. Louis Rams walked onto the field with hand’s in the air to signify “hands up, don’t shoot” due to Michael Brown’s death.

With the presidential election coming up, social issues are an even hotter topic than usual. It is not likely athletes speaking their minds about the issues is going to slow down any of the talk. What is important to keep in mind is when these things hit it is not what the athletes are doing, but why are they doing it.

A message is an easy thing to get lost in the shuffle, so next time a team wears a controversial t-shirt to practice or forming a silent protest- look into what events were the catalyst for these things and ask if what these athletes are doing are violating anyone’s rights.

It is important for athletes to take a stand for what they believe in because they reach an audience that may not normally expose themselves to all current events. Not every person that picks up a sports page or heads to espn.com is going to explore other sections of the news.

Athletes stepping into the forefront of controversial topics is going to bring both love and criticism, but the most important thing it brings is more conversation. A fan doesn’t always have to agree with what is being said or done, but more exposure of important issues and getting people to talk is the goal every time an athlete opens their mouths.

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