More Than an Athlete: How Black Athletes Have Influenced Change
Black athletes have been expected to keep quiet about socio-political issues since the integration of sports in 1950. It wasn’t until very recently that some have started speaking up about their anger with systemic racism and police brutality. This is largely due to their reputations and opportunities being put at risk from the past influence of conservative media on sports management. An example of this is Michael Jordan—who is often remarked as the greatest athlete to ever live—never having spoken about his opinion or political beliefs in fear of his career or reputation being tarnished. Jordan also declined a request to endorse Black candidate Harvey Gantt for Senate in his home state of North Carolina, even when Gantt’s opponent heavily protested against the civil rights of Black lives. And although the majority of Black athletes have been coerced into remaining quiet about their opinions, there are a few who have risked it all for justice and equality.
Top photo: TONY TOMSIC/AP PHOTO
Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Brown, Lew Alcindor, Carl Stokes, Walter Beach, Bobby Mitchell, Sid Williams, Curtis McClinton, Willie Davis, Jim Shorter and John Wooten in support of Muhammad Ali refusing to serve in the Vietnam War.
HAL SWEENEY/THE BOSTON GLOBE/GETTY IMAGES
Bill Russell (center), shown at NAACP headquarters in 1964.
NBA legend Bill Russell used his platform during the civil rights movement in the 1960s to voice his anger on discrimination and injustice. There’s a photo of Russell speaking at the NAACP headquarters in 1964 alongside his fellow Boston Celtics teammates. Bill Russell is personally one of my idols, and his monumental influence on the NBA helped pave the way for future Black athletes.
Muhammad Ali, one of the most prolific boxers of all time, advocated for justice throughout his entire career. He gave a plethora of speeches and statements regarding his stance on socio-political events, defending the African-American community and the Islamic community. After his refusal to serve in Vietnam, Ali said “no Vietcong ever called me a n****r” in defense of him and all other African-Americans who had refused to serve in the war. Muhammad Ali continued to raise awareness and fundraise multiple charities that advocated for anti-bullying, anti-war and human rights. During the Vietnam War, Ali protested and refused to fight for a country that did not fight for him, he had many other important figures in the African-American community like Malcom X and Bill Russell support and defend his refusal to go to war.
Lastly, Lebron James, current NBA superstar and Black Lives Matter activist has sparked several athletes’ activism in the last decade with the beginning of his movement “More Than an Athlete.” This movement began around the time Fox News reporter Laura Ingraham said that NBA players Kevin Durant and Lebron James should just “shut up and dribble,” and that she was not interested in hearing political advice from "someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball." James responded to these statements by beginning his new movement. More Than an Athlete isn’t just about fighting racial inequality, it’s about providing young people of color with better opportunities for better lives. This movement grabbed the attention of hundreds of athletes of all sports, each becoming more vocal about discrimination and encouraging other athletes to speak up and help local communities that haven’t been offered the same opportunities for new generations to prosper.
Despite the many attempts at silencing those who desire justice and change, society is beginning to collectively understand that only one race truly matters, the human race. As this cultural shift takes place—racism, bigotry, and ignorance will soon be distant memories of our past.
With the help of these many athletes using their influence to speak out against hate and bigotry, justice will be served to those who have been denied it for far too long. The United States wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for Black people, let alone Black athletes. The time is now for Black athletes to be given the respect they deserve so they can freely speak against old racist men who have been cultivating Black exploitation in athletics. I’m certain that movements like More Than an Athlete will continue to expand and change the views of future generations.
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