Hidden behind their helmets and silenced by cheering fans in a surrounding arena, typical athletes did not hold the kind of power in social activism that they do today. Ballplayers were put on a field to play ball; gymnasts were put in gyms to tumble; and runners were put on a track to sprint.
But 2020 and 2021 have painted a new picture for athletes.
Now, they have taken off their uniforms and joined the world in the revolution for change in society, marching side by side with their fans to solve the problems that overpower our news channels today.
Allyson Felix, though, does not have to take off her uniform to stand up for women’s empowerment. Rather, she must put it on.
In her last individual race of the Tokyo Olympics, Felix crossed the 400-meter finish line to become the most decorated female track and field athlete in history while wearing her emblem of women’s equality: Athleta.
Felix’s gender equality activism began with a brawl with Nike in 2018 when the company seeked to implement a 70% pay cut in her renewed sponsorship contract. The reason: Felix was pregnant.
In 2019, Felix moved on from Nike to Athleta. By officially dropping Nike in 2019 and refusing its pay cut as a result of motherhood, Felix acted in accordance with Athleta’s motto: “simple math, ladies. SHE is the root of power.” In doing so, Felix rocked athletic apparel companies. Nike transformed its company policy to guarantee consistent pay 18 months around pregnancy, as opposed to its 12-month policy declared in 2018. Furthermore, Nike confirmed this by sending written confirmation of this edit to new and current female sponsors.
On a global scale, Felix’s outcry for female empowerment and belief in the power of women were among the first calls to action made for a multinational corporation, transcending the landscape of sports activism in 2021.
Felix was well-accompanied by fellow athletes in the rise of activism this past year.
The Associated Press’ 2020 AP Female of the year, Naomi Osaka, allowed for her uniform to represent something greater than herself as well. During the U.S. Open, Osaka brought attention toward what was already filling our news channels and streets with protest. Wearing masks for victims of police brutality, such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Elijah McClain, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery and Philando Castile, Osaka showed that her role as an observed athlete does not solely entail entertainment, but also social progress.
Individual athletes are not the only people prompting a rise in activism and using their voices to publicize discrimination.
After Jacob Blake was brutally murdered in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Bucks took a stand by sitting out their game against the Orlando Magic in 2020. The Bucks sparked a domino effect, sending protests in Blake’s honor across the major sports leagues in the United Staes, including MLB and WNBA teams.
The leagues’ understanding of protests and internal activism has heavily transformed this past year, especially compared to the way national sports leagues responded to protests in years past.
Colin Kaepernick’s kneel during the national anthem in Qualcomm Stadium incited heavy backlash and political outrage by coaches, athletes, fans and political figures, including former president Donald Trump. Kaeperick’s activism and outcry for racial equality in the United States was a symbolic necessity, but it also compromised his sports career, as he remains a free agent to this day.
This example drastically contrasts from the NFL’s greatest recent symbol of activism: LGBTQ+ rights.
On June 21, during 2021’s Pride Month, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib became the first NFL player to publicly come out as gay. On June 22, Nassib’s No. 94 jersey was the NFL’s top seller.
This transformation from hatred to support in football’s activist culture has become a microcosm for the social movements that athletes have begun to represent.
The flame of activism has spread so far deep into national leagues and global sporting events that an athlete’s uniform is no longer used only for the purpose of competition and team pride. These uniforms sound off the alarms for social movements and progress in what is tearing down equality in the world.
Simply put, athletes are more emboldened than ever to speak out for equality and fight for their respective cause.
Felix’s work toward gender equality, Osaka’s awareness of police brutality and Nassib’s LGBTQ+ activism are a means of opening up the conversation of how sports and politics are overlapping in a much more redeeming way this year. On or off of their sporting arena, these athletes are challenging the typical role of an athlete by showing that an athlete and an activist are one in the same.
Alisa Steel covers women’s swim and dive. Contact her at [email protected].