Whether it’s Lebron James on the campaign trail for Hillary Clinton, or Colin Kaepernick and other professional football players choosing to kneel during the national anthem in solidarity with black people against police brutality, the trend of separating politics and athletics has slowly dissolved in the age of social media and 24/7 sports coverage. Americans from two or three generations ago no longer recognize the new professional sports landscape, where it is commonplace for athletes to inject their opinions on contentious political issues. Back in the era before social media, athletes like Larry Bird were notorious for avoiding press conferences and not commenting on anything political. Magic Johnson was met with stark opposition for supporting HIV awareness following his highly publicized HIV positive test. Even Bill Belichick, an old-school NFL coach for the New England Patriots, famously commented in 2011 that he didn’t “Twitter, MyFace, or Yearbook. I don’t use any of those things.” However, it is clear that the advent of social media and constant media coverage has thrown professional athletes into the limelight, and politics and sports are becoming increasingly intertwined.
The Centennial Conference and Division III sports in suburban Pennsylvania don’t exactly equate with the glamor of major professional sports in the United States. However, the recent election results have prompted many student groups on campus to speak up, including prominent athletic teams. Three days after the election, the Swarthmore Men’s Tennis team posted a public statement on their Facebook page that received over 130 likes and 20 shares.
“The Swarthmore Men’s Tennis team is devoted to ensuring the respect, safety, and dignity for all individuals and communities that have been, and will continue to be, affected by the recent election. As male athletes, we urge ALL men’s athletic programs, as well as ALL male organizations on campus to do the same. Silence is inaction, and we must speak up.”
The post continued, “This is also a reminder to ALL men on this campus, regardless of your athletic affiliation, that sexism and misogyny are systems of oppression that you are, consciously or not, a part of. This means not only standing in solidarity with your fellow Swarthmore students, but also actively fighting for, marching with, and listening to those around you who don’t benefit from said systems.”
Blake Oetting ’18, a co-captain of the Men’s Varsity Tennis team, said the intention of the post was to show solidarity with marginalized groups on campus.
“It was necessary to make the posts to show solidarity with the women on this campus, but we shouldn’t pretend that our job is done. I hope male sports team set expectations for themselves to drastically shift the type of discourse they have regarding women and their bodies and show up to rallies, demonstrations, etc. to prove their written support. Our job is far from over and I hope those who make the posts don’t think that is the case,” Oetting said.
When asked about the unique responsibility as a student-athlete at Swarthmore, Oetting talked about the connection between athletics and an exclusively male group with societal power and privilege.
“I don’t feel responsibility as an athlete to speak out, per se. But, because being an athlete places me within a specifically gendered group, and because that group is the benefactor of undue social privilege, it was necessary to collaborate and produce something, even something as simple as a Facebook post, to show solidarity,” Oetting said.
Later that day, the Men’s Soccer team came out with a similar public statement on their Facebook page, pledging to create a healthy locker room environment and disavowing all forms of racism, sexism, and homophobia.
“The Swarthmore College Men’s Soccer team echoes the sentiments expressed by Swarthmore Men’s Tennis in response to recent political events.We would like to pledge a renewed commitment to ensuring that racism, sexism, and discrimination of any kind are not welcome within our ranks.”
The statement went on to address the nature of the Men’s Soccer team’s locker room, and provided a contrast to the recent news surrounding the Harvard Men’s Soccer team, whose season was cancelled after team member emails were uncovered rating girls in a misogynistic manner.
“Almost every day, we come together in our locker room. ‘Locker room talk,’ as Trump has put it, does not have a place in our locker room. Under absolutely no circumstances are sexist and misogynistic comments acceptable, nor is sexual assault something to boast or joke about. We will be working everyday to ensure that our locker room, and more broadly the culture of our team, will always revolve around care and respect for others.”
Billy Evers ’17, co-captain of the Men’s Soccer team, noted that the team’s mentality after the election was characterized by solidarity with the campus.
“We were inspired by the similar post from the Men’s Tennis team, and also by some of our friends outside of the team who suggested it could be helpful to some people who were hurting. Because our locker room is a meaningful space for us, we were also inspired to respond to comments from politicians labeling sexual assault as locker room talk. […] We have had several team meetings about our core values, in which we have discussed relevant issues on campus and how we can work to assure that our impact on community life is a positive one.”
Fay Blelloch ’20, a member of the Women’s Varsity Lacrosse team, commented on the importance of the Facebook posts and male athletes standing in solidarity with women on campus.
“I really appreciated that a lot of male sports teams spoke up and showed solidarity with people who were adversely affected by the results of the election. Regardless of whether you are an athlete or not, I thought it was really important that prominent groups on campus decided to renew commitments to diversity, inclusion, and disavowing ‘locker room talk,’ Blelloch said.
Athletes from many varsity teams at Swarthmore have seemed to unite over the issue, but the need to stay politically engaged on campus remains.
Jordan Reyes ’19, a member of the Varsity Track and Field team and a key organizer behind the recent school wide walk-out, spoke regarding the need for continued advocacy from student-athletes and all members of the Swarthmore community.
“Whether you are an athlete or anyone, you have a responsibility to say something about these negative things we are seeing in the news. Sports teams need to speak out because we consist of people, and we as a collective entity need to tell others that we want to make sure everyone feels comfortable in this community and beyond.”
From professional athletes to student-athletes at Swarthmore, political engagement isn’t just a trend, it’s a civic responsibility for people in positions of public privilege. The Facebook posts following the election from various sports teams on campus go to show that from the professional level to Division III sports, athletes in the 21st century are civically and politically engaged, emblematic of the responsibility that athletes have today.