It’s tempting to believe that there is somewhere on this earth where racism, sexism, climate change, exploitative capitalism and corporate greed and countless other social ills simply do not exist. Some people believe that the world of sports is that magical place, where political controversies end with a change of the channel and social issues are left at the door.
In reality, sports are far from perfect, and there are systemic issues that need to be addressed. This is why just as “apolitical citizen” is an oxymoron, so is “apolitical athlete.” Athletes aren’t afforded the luxury of remaining silent about political issues when the equality and humanity of their colleagues are called into question by our country and the world of sports itself.
Jackie Robinson understood that fact quite well. He did not stop being a Black man when he broke the MLB color barrier back in 1947 by becoming the first Black American to play in the major league since its segregation, and that was made abundantly clear through all of the racist threats and abuse he endured. Since Robinson’s debut, the MLB has substantially increased the diversity of its players, with room for improvement still.
In 1976, former Olympic rower Chris Ernst staged a protest along with 18 of her Yale women’s rowing teammates against the relative lack of women’s athletic facilities at the school, which they understood to be in violation of their rights as outlined in Title IX. Today, Title IX is actually enforced, and female college athletes are at least properly protected under the law.
The sports world as we know it has been won through activism. And while many applaud athlete activists for their work, the activists have, throughout history, understood that they have no other choice. Those of yesteryear knew that they were not exempt from the effects of bad policy and discrimination, and modern athletes still aren’t today.
Systemic racism is reflected in the racial demographics of NFL ownership compared to the makeup of NFL players. While more than half of NFL players are Black, there are only two people of color among all 32 NFL owners. It is no wonder that there are zero Black NFL owners when we understand that discriminatory policies of all kinds throughout U.S. history have prevented Black people from building generational wealth.
Covert racism explains former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick being effectively blackballed by the NFL. He led the 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance in 2013 and is known for his speed outside of the pocket. He was excellent in the pocket as well, boasting the sixth-best touchdown-to-interception ratio in history ahead of Drew Brees (seventh). Kaepernick is not out of a job for lack of skill, but because he is a Black man who made white fans uncomfortable.
Extreme weather induced by climate change could destroy arenas and stadiums across the country. According to Florida International University professor Henry Briceno, the Miami Heat’s stadium, AmericanAirlines Arena, will flood with just 2 feet of sea-level rise. Briceno says this will likely occur within the next 20 years.
Sexism explains the unequal treatment of the U.S. men’s and women’s soccer teams. Part of U.S. Soccer’s argument against equal pay for female players is that the women’s team does not make as much revenue and draws fewer spectators than the men’s team does. As senior staff writer Jasper Kenzo Sundeen put it, this argument against equality from U.S. Soccer is based on the unethical, and in this case, sexist, notion that equality must be earned and not be given from the start.
Exploitative capitalism and corporate greed explain the MLB’s inability to come to an agreement with the MLB Players Association. In an attempt to potentially save billions of dollars by avoiding a season altogether, MLB owners, led by Commissioner Rob Manfred, demanded last week that the players’ union waive its right to sue, a deplorable tactic that asks players to hand over their most basic rights in order to return to work.
White athletes and non-BIPOC who choose to stand idly by while racist injustices are perpetrated against their fellow athletes are not hiding the fact that sports are inherently political; rather, they are highlighting that reality. Every professional player, organization and league that refused to issue a statement immediately after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers is making the implicit argument that sports are separate from the real world. Perhaps they are, but only from their privileged perspective.
We should all continue to enjoy sports while also recognizing that it is impossible to separate the sports world from the real world. To those athletes who recognize their responsibility to be allies and fight for justice, keep going. And to those who lament the ostensibly recent politicization of sports, get your heads out of the sand. Activism is imperative wherever sociopolitical issues abound, and the sports world is no exception. Much progress has been made, but we still have a long way to go.
White and non-BIPOC athletes, fans and owners: Stay loud or get loud. You have no other choice.
William Cooke covers women’s basketball. Contact him at