Colorful graphic with a photo and quote from Allison Burtka
2021 Business Culture

Less Backlash For Athletes’ Activism

Monthly Issue Predictions & Provocations for Sport: 2021

Athletes have stepped up as advocates this year. The WNBA and NBA shut down games after Jacob Blake was shot, and the MLB showed support for #BlackLivesMatter. College athletes—and sometimes their coaches—led marches and demonstrations. Atlanta Dream guard Renee Montgomery opted out of the 2020 WNBA season to focus on social justice reform.

And some powerful decision-makers have reversed course to support athletes who use their platform to advocate for racial and social justice. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said that he would not discipline players who take a knee during the national anthem, and that the league should have listened to players’ concerns about racial injustice.

On December 10, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) said it will no longer sanction Team USA athletes for demonstrating peacefully in Olympic and Paralympic venues. Last year, the USOPC reprimanded hammer thrower Gwen Berry for raising her fist and fencer Race Imboden for kneeling on the podium at the 2019 Pan American Games. It also put them on probation.

I talked with Berry and three members of the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice, which developed the recommendations that the USOPC adopted.

Berry knew that raising her fist would have consequences. “I felt like it was worth the risk, because it's something that people don't pay enough attention to, because America has a lot of distractions,” she said. “I feel like people just think that everything is OK here, and it's not.” She lost sponsors after being reprimanded.

Over the summer, people rose up in protests across the U.S., and people and companies that had never spoken up about racial injustice did so for the first time. But some of that died down.

“It was getting frustrating for me to see how excited people were to engage in the performative part of the work, to post on social media,” but then “it faded from consciousness,” said Tianna Bartoletta, a member of the council and an Olympic gold medalist in the long jump and 4x100m relay. “I and people who look like me, or who have these experiences, don't get to suddenly not feel these things because they're not popular anymore.” She said she got involved with the council because she was fed up.

What many athletes have been saying is that you can’t separate the athlete from the human being—and you shouldn’t want to.

“You can't separate my skin from being an athlete,” said Moushaumi Robinson, chair of the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice and an Olympic gold medalist in the 4x400m relay. “I'm a Black female athlete. And what I don't get to tell anybody when I'm walking in a store or when I'm experiencing a microaggression is, ‘Oh, hey, can you not be like that? Because I'm an Olympic gold medalist.’ They don't see that. They see my skin color.”

The beauty of sport is “not just the sport—it's the human being that's doing it,” Robinson said. “If we just watch for the sake of sport, we've missed an amazing and beautiful part of what sport is all about: the person."

Naysayers often argue that the podium, or the field or the court, just isn’t the appropriate place for a demonstration. But, Bartoletta said, the people who say that “can't answer the question: Where is an appropriate place?”

Robinson said, “To tell them that they shouldn't have a voice, that's hard for the athlete to swallow when you want them to perform.”

The council’s recommendations say: Recent global movements for racial and social justice, bringing back into public consciousness the historical significance of U.S. athletes in driving societal change, have shown that peaceful protests and demonstrations are a sign of moral leadership and can serve as a moral compass in centering human dignity in global sport.”

And sport is home to a long line of advocates. This includes John Carlos, Tommie Smith, and Wyomia Tyus at the 1968 Olympics, as well as professional and collegiate athletes who led demonstrations and spoke publicly about racial injustice this year.

This activism also includes St. Louis Rams players who came out with a “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture in 2014 after Michael Brown was killed, and student-athlete protests at the University of Missouri in 2015, said Scott Brooks, who is part of the council’s leadership team and director of research at Arizona State University’s Global Sport Institute. “I think we're seeing that what happens in one space is being picked up and carried on,” he said. “This has been building.”

It’s also global, Brooks said, pointing out that at a Paris Saint-Germain/Istanbul Basaksehir football game earlier this month, players walked out after an instance of racism against a coach.

So is the tide turning? It looks like it. Not everyone is going to accept athletes who advocate for racial and social justice, but they might face less backlash than they once did. If Colin Kaepernick took a knee for the first time today rather than in 2016, more people might be willing to hear his message.

“I think what you'll find is, athletes will feel more supported, more empowered to speak up about things that are important to them, things that they're passionate about, things that they want to raise awareness about,” Bartoletta said. “I don't believe that, on a large scale, suddenly the stigma of kneeling during the anthem or demonstrating on a podium is going to go away. The important part is that people that claim to support us are now actually supporting us.”

Brooks agreed. “We're still wondering how many of the organizations that put out statements in June are going to make good on the things that they said. And here you have an organization that is making good”—the USOPC responded to what the athletes have been calling for, he said.

When COVID-19 hit, athletes who were aiming for Tokyo this year had to adjust their plans. Now, they’re looking forward to the 2021 Olympic and Paralympic Games and the potential for a podium moment.

“I hope that USA athletes feel like they can actually finally compete for what and who they need to compete for,” Berry said. “It's just not about patriotism. It's about everything that you have to endure to get there. And a lot of people are supported by their family, their friends, their coaches, their communities.”

They don’t want to pretend their communities are fine if they’re not. This year, when people have told athletes to shut up and dribble, many of them have responded: No. Even when the stakes have been high.

Allison Torres Burtka is a freelance writer and editor, and her writing on race in sport has appeared in Women’s Running, espnW, Sierra magazine, Global Sport Matters, and other outlets. You can read more of her work here

Monthly Issue

Predictions & Provocations for Sport: 2021

Although no one could have predicted all that 2020 has been, what lessons will the world of sport take into next year?

We asked some of the best and brightest minds to contribute their thoughts.