February 13, 2021
For student-athletes, 2021 provides perfect backdrop for activism
Sports and Society will dig deeper into social justice and sports in our four-part series "Intersec tionality of Change." Please join us!
by Darby Clark
With the onset of a global pandemic and a surge of civil rights protests comparable to those of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, 2020 was a year full of change.
That change has included the opportunity for student-athletes across the country to use their platforms to speak up and speak out more than ever before.
“As we know, there’s been activism in sports for decades, for so long. But this time, right now, this time, this period in American history, is just different,” Luke Fedlam, head of the Sports Law Practice Group at Porter Wright law firm and , said.
Fedlam, who also serves as president of Anomaly Sports Group, an organization committed to aiding, educating and protecting student-athletes, said the coronavirus has provided an apt setting for social justice activism to take center stage.
“It’s caused things to slow down and/or in certain instances, stop,” Fedlam said. “And it’s almost like collectively, people have more time, and collectively, people have more ability to hear what’s going on around them.”
Because people were at home and unable to watch sports, Fedlam said, social issues bubbled to the surface and now, people couldn’t look away.
“George Floyd’s death was captured on television, social media, etcetera, so it’s almost unavoidable,” Fedlam said. “And that’s just George Floyd, but then you add on Ahmaud Arbery, you add on Breonna Taylor, you add on Jacob Blake—you add on, and you add on and you add on.
“There is, at a certain point, this internal imperative that I know many athletes feel to use whatever platform they have to speak out and to try to effectuate change through their platform.”
At their various schools, student-athletes receive the attention of media, fans and the alumni base, meaning their reach is far greater than just one human to another, Fedlam said. And as they realize the power of their voice, student-athletes understand even more the value of utilizing it.
While no one can speak for an entire group, he said he’s sensed a special conviction among student-athletes of color.
“Many that I’ve spoken with have expressed this almost moral requirement to use their platform to speak out,” Fedlam said.
Listening to student-athletes’ voices has gradually become easier and easier with the advent of new technology over the years, from radio to television to social media.
With social media, the immediacy and minimal censorship gives the public an even clearer look at the lives of student-athletes, according to Dr. Akilah Carter-Francique, an associate professor in the department of African American studies at San José State University and executive director of SJSU’s Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change.
“Athletes are able to communicate their feelings, their concerns, their joys, their pains, all on this platform, unfiltered,” Carter-Francique said. “Within there, individuals are able to sort of see their humanity, of those athletes, but also hear their voice, without those words being filtered, without them being edited, without them, in some respects, being omitted from the dialogue, from the history, from the story.”
The spread of social media has made connecting with people across the world on unified topics significantly easier, Fedlam said, but the athletes can’t simply use social media more and have it work effectively. The audience has to be ripe for it—and now, it is.
“Society has gotten to a place that, because of social media, we have gotten used to, or we have become more desirous of, knowing so much more about athletes than we maybe have ever kind of known before,” Fedlam said.
This need to know more has only amplified the student-athlete voice and adrenalized their potential for influence. But time can be a large limitation on their ability to speak out, Fedlam said, with their schedules being so full of school and sports that there is often little space left to leverage for the causes close to their hearts.
Meanwhile, on the business side, there is another major factor at play: money.
Carter-Francique said for many schools, funding for varying aspects of the institution rides on donations and financial support largely surrounding athletics.
“We have to understand in many ways that college athletics is considered the front porch to a university,” she said. “They are the money-maker.”
The need to keep finances steady can result in restrictions around highly visible activism for student-athletes in revenue-producing sports—football and men’s and women’s basketball. As a result, some student-athletes protest social problems more quietly and without broadcasting their athlete status.
“It is one where coach says, administrator says, ‘If you do this, that’s fine; don’t wear your jersey, don’t stick to the fact that you’re an athlete at this particular university or at this organization,’” Carter-Francique said. “We still want you to do it, but just understand that there could be some ramifications by having affiliation or demonstrating in an affiliated mindset where people can recognize you in those lanes.”
Student-athletes will be able to more publicly pursue social justice around issues that complement their university’s brand, Carter-Francique said, since the school is willing to align itself with those values.
“If it speaks to their mission, if it speaks to their vision, if it speaks to the greater university and what they hold, those athletes will be out there dressed in best, speaking and supporting and doing all those things that we see typical advocacy groups or activist groups do,” Carter-Francique said.
Fedlam said it’s crucial for athletes to be aware of their school’s position going in.
“What’s important is, is that the athlete understands the stance, if you will, of the coaching staff, of the team that they play on, as well as any requirements by the athletic department,” Fedlam said.
Due to the events of this year, schools across the country are reassessing their positions on racial issues.
“A lot of institutions, and I would say athletic departments even in particular, are having a reflective moment, but also perhaps in many ways coming back to the drawing board—maybe being asked to look at the drawing board—and to revisit the way that they have done business,” Carter-Francique said.
A former collegiate athlete herself, Carter-Francique said student-athletes’ stories and lived experiences should be trusted.
“When we speak up and speak out about it, there is merit in it, and so we need to definitely listen to our young people, listen to our student-athletes,” Carter-Francique said. “Their day doesn’t end and begin with them being an athlete; they’re a citizen of our community.”