Sports, social issues linked in ways unseen for decades.
Sports, social issues linked in 2016 in ways unseen for decades
Go back almost 25 years. That’s when Charles Barkley was making an announcement for the public, one that stirred a discussion about the social responsibilities of an athlete. “I am not a role model,” Barkley said in 1993. The then-NBA superstar’s comment became a focus of conversation around the public tasks of athletes. Utah Jazz power forward Karl Malone pushed back at Barkley by writing a column for Sports Illustrated saying athletes were automatically role models because of their platform. Sides aligned themselves, and, per usual, Michael Jordan remained largely silent on anything that would have potentially taken him off-message or curtailed his marketing dollars.
Fast forward to 2016, when local and national athletes interjected themselves repeatedly into major social issues. From protests of the national anthem to decorative cleats to the relocation of a league’s major event, the sports world became intertwined with cultural happenings in 2016 in a way it had not since the 1970s.
Take Jordan as an example. For years, decades even, his outstretched silhouette was arguably the most famous symbol in sports paraphernalia, perhaps just behind the swoosh of the company distributing it, Nike. Jordan was criticized in the past for not participating in social topics, seen as only concerned with the next sale of shoes and “Be like Mike” campaigns. But, in 2016, even he waded into public discourse, if only in a moderate way. Jordan put out a letter that said in part he was “deeply troubled by the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement and angered by the cowardly and hateful targeting and killing of police officers.”
In typical Jordan fashion, this was a packaged and managed statement for the public — that he put
one forth was a signal of change for him.
Nothing stirred more response during the year than a backup quarterback remaining seated, then taking a knee, during the national anthem before NFL games. The protest of San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick was unnoticed at first. He sat on the bench when the national anthem was sung in the first two games of the preseason. Aug. 26, he was spotted sitting just in front of Gatorade coolers while his teammates stood. From there, Kaepernick’s actions became one of the stories of the year.
The decisions by Jordan and, more influentially Kaepernick, spurred other athletes to follow suit in various ways. In Washington, wide receiver DeSean Jackson, a Los Angeles native, wore cleats with yellow caution tape on them.
“I felt the need to do it,” said Jackson after a game Week 4 against the Cleveland Browns. “I felt like I’ve been silent long enough. It’s a bigger problem out there in the communities, in our society, things like the type of situations [where] people losing their lives, families like that. Little kids going home and not having their parents no more because of crazy things going on; so as far as the response, whatever the response is, that’s what it is, but I felt that it was time for me to make a stance and speak up on it.”
There was pushback and mediation following the displays of protest. Kaepernick began taking a knee instead of sitting during the national anthem after talking with Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret who had a brief preseason stop with the Seattle Seahawks in 2015. At times, NFL players raised fists on the sideline during the anthem. These actions during the start of the NFL season made many wonder what would happen when the NBA tipped off near Halloween.
Teams internally discussed what to do. The Washington Wizards joined many NBA teams in a decision to lock arms during the national anthem. At some Wizards and Redskins games, the occasional fan can be seen sitting during the anthem. No player has.
The biggest decision from the NBA came when, in an unprecedented move, it relocated its All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans because of North Carolina’s House Bill 2, also colloquially known as the “bathroom bill.”
“While we recognize that the NBA cannot choose the law in every city, state and country in which we do business, we do not believe we can successfully host our All-Star festivities in Charlotte in the climate created by the current law,” the league said in a statement.
All this in a year when Muhammad Ali, one of the most prominent athlete activists in history, died. As the calendar turns, the questions are about what’s next. Will 2017 piggyback off the statements and actions of 2016? Will visual displays give way to more tangible pursuits? Or will the maintenance of brand cause athletes to revert to the quiet time that ran from when Barkley decried a label that said he was a role model to 2015?