Throughout history, athletes have demonstrated that they can and should take active roles in the fight for justice. Muhammad Ali personifies the greatness, both in physical ability and in advocacy, that all athletes should strive for. On April 28, 1967, Ali refused to be drafted in the U.S. military and became a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. Ali argued that his faith prevented him from fighting in an unjust war. He was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison, though he managed to avoid imprisonment and was stripped of his boxing license at the peak of his career. His conviction was overturned four years later, and his license was renewed in 1970. Throughout his life, Ali used his platform and personality to shine a light on causes that mattered deeply to him and to act as a voice for those who needed one. The impact of this activism helped to strengthen and motivate the movements that defined the 20th century.
Fast forward 50 years, and we come to Colin Kaepernick’s “Take a Knee” protests against police brutality. Kaepernick used his platform to call attention to the systemic racism and violence that people of color face in the United States, often at the hands of police. Kaepernick has been without a team for the past few years since he started his protest. More recently, he has won a lawsuit that demonstrates that he was blacklisted from football for his activism. Teams refused to hire him because his message was “too political.” Many claimed that they only objected to his method of protest, kneeling during the national anthem. In reality, it was his message that prompted negative responses. White fans were made uncomfortable by the topic of police brutality and by being forced to recognize their own complicity in the violence. This anger at Kaepernick very much mirrors the way that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of the white moderate, whom he said “paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’” Kaepernick did not take action with the expectation that no backlash would occur. He took action in spite of the criticism because he cared deeply about the issue. Ali and Kaepernick were a model for other athletes by using their voice and power to lift up the voices of others.
Ali and Kaepernick’s actions contrast with those of Michael Jordan, who has refrained from speaking up about political issues until it is no longer considered risky. Michael Jordan is not alone in this regard, as this describes a majority of current athletes. Many more athletes should follow Ali and Kaepernick’s example and use their platforms to do good. It is a privilege to remain apolitical. Many athletes are told to “stay in their lane,” but the truth is that remaining apolitical is a choice to side with the groups in power, and that athletes are perfectly positioned to draw attention to the most potent issues that we face. Speaking up is not without its risks (Ali and Kaepernick both lost their jobs), but the point of activism is to defy risk in order to be a part of something bigger. As the center of pride and camaraderie, athletes unite people of different backgrounds, locations, and identities. They are more likely to be listened to and not dismissed than an already established politician or organizer. Just as the arts have bridged divides across history, from resistance music in apartheid South Africa, to Taiko drumming in Japan, the parts of our lives that we consider uncontroversial and incredibly personal (art, music, movies, sporting events) have the most power to change our mindsets and our actions. The more that athletes speak out about an issue, the more normalized the resistance becomes. While other prominent figures can certainly spread messages, the role of the athlete has a unique potency in the way that we view it. Athletes represent the best that humanity can achieve. As such, their messages spread into daily discourse more effectively. Coaches and owners have a heightened obligation to speak up as well. As the main power holders in professional athletics, they carry significant amounts of weight, and at the bare minimum, should be backing up their athletes who choose to take a stand. The burden of this fight should not be placed on the shoulders of a select group of athletes of color but should be spread across those with power and privilege. White athletes are especially positioned to use their multiple layers of power to help bring attention to the voices of the marginalized, and as such face a heightened obligation and responsibility to do so.
The word athlete stems from the Greek word ἄϝεθλον (áwethlon), which itself comes from a root word that means “to strive.” With this in mind, not only are athletes in a prime position to serve as a platform for causes, but they also have an obligation to do so if they wish to fulfill the true meaning of their role in society. They should strive not just for physical greatness and prowess, but also for greatness in the broader sense. They should champion causes of great importance to them, and they should be just as unrelenting in their push for justice as they are in their respective fields. College athletes are uniquely positioned in their dual role as activists and athletes and should be especially vigorous in their fight for justice. Muhammad Ali was an amazing boxer, but fighting alone is not what made him “The Greatest.” Ali used his voice to serve the vulnerable, and his greatest fight did not take place in a boxing ring, it took place on the international stage. Ali’s activism made him great, and such devotion is something that every athlete should strive for.