Recent Conversations On Sport & Athlete Activism

Feb 1, 2019

By Ellen J. Staurowsky, Senior Contributor & Professor, Sport Management, Drexel University,
In December of 2018, the Aspen Institute hosted a program on the Future of Sport Activism: Reimagining It’s Bottom Line featuring panelists who had, in their various roles as athletes, coaches, journalists, and administrators, facilitated and/or written about athletes efforts to mobilize around social justice issues. The panelists included former NBA player and author of We Matter: Athletes and Activism, Etan Thomas; WNBA head coach and manager of the Minnesota Lynx, Cheryl Reeve; ESPN reporter Israel Gutierrez; NFL Players Association general council, Joe Briggs; University of Maryland football player, Ellis McKennie; and Liz Clarke, Washington Post sports reporter.
The two-hour program offered a wide-ranging treatment of the issue of sport activism, with a compelling undercurrent in terms of the reason each of the panelists was there. Etan Thomas, for example, recounted the interviews he had with former and current NBA athletes along with other sport industry insiders, situating the discussion of the future of sport activism within the historical context of race, politics, and civil rights emanating out of the 1960s and the present realities of police brutality, racial profiling, high Black male incarceration rates, and poverty. In turn, Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve addressed the need for leaders within sport organizations to be conscious of the world in which their athletes live and the need to be open and responsive to the issues that affect their lives. In explaining her own thought process when the team responded to several shootings of unarmed Black men in 2017 by wearing t-shirts that read “Change Starts with Us — Justice and Accountability” with the names of some of the slain men on the back along with the expression “Black Lives Matter”, she commented that players should not be viewed simply for their playing ability but as members of a family.
Ellis McKennie’s activism as a player grew out of the tragic death of his teammate, Jordan McNair, who died from the neglect by coaches and athletic training staff. Following an investigation into the team’s culture, which yielded a report showing that the majority of football players gave the head coach, D. J. Durkin, poor ratings and that they believed he did not show adequate concern for their health and safety, the University decided to reinstate the coach after he was suspended pending the investigation. McKennie became the focal point for the power athletes sometimes hold in the palm of their hands when he tweeted this comment about the decision “Every Saturday my teammates and I have to kneel before the memorial of our fallen teammate. Yet a group of people do not have the courage to hold anyone accountable for his death. If only they could have the courage that Jordan had. It’s never the wrong time to do what’s right (Crabtree-Hannigan, 2018). He, along with other players, were instrumental in assuring that Durkin would not in fact return to the team.
While the personal narratives of each of the panelists offered insight as to why athletes and people working in sport feel a duty to use the public platform available to them to raise awareness and work toward social change, the question posed by the Aspen Institute regarding whether activism around sport will become a routine occurrence echoed a top sport industry trend identified by Deloitte (2018). According to Game On: Sports Industry Trends for 2018, sport activism was among the top six trends that were expected to disrupt and dominate the sport industry moving into the future. The report noted that “Sport activism is here to stay, and the clock is ticking on brands, leagues, and teams to decide where they stand” (Deloitte, 2018, second para.).
The Aspen Institute forum on sport activism dealt with why people in the sport industry should be tuned into the culture and mindful of the social context within which sport exists. The discussion, however, did not address the ”how” of sport activism, meaning the complications associated with forms of resistance; sources of governance failures that plague sport organizations fueling some athlete activism, and the need for sport organizations to examine the inequities in power that exist within governance structures that leave athletes vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Just two days after the Aspen Institute’s program on sport activism, Brendan Schwab, the executive director of the World Players Association (a group representing 85,000 professional athletes from more than 60 countries who are members of more than 100 players associations), addressed the third annual Sporting Chance Forum in Paris. Reinforcing the fact that sport organizations have an obligation under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, Schwab (2018a) said, “We can all learn from our collective history, which has taught us that, despite the human rights crises that regularly confront sport, the progress we seek will not be given, but must be worked for by the affected people themselves and their genuine representatives and recognized advocates. The athletes, workers, fans, local communities, journalists, and children must have a real voice to stand up for themselves and have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives.”
Schwab (2018b) conceives of athlete activism as occurring at three levels: individual activism, collective activism and institutional activism. He identifies three critical components to institutional athlete activism, including substantive change where sport workplaces where policies and practices that affect athletes are embedded with principles of human rights and where there is an unwavering commitment to a system of (decent) work; institution building where athletes have access to legitimate forms of representation; and cultural change where authority is shared and the conduct of sport organizations is transparent.
Crabtree-Hannigan, J. (2018, October 31). Maryland football players speak out on Twitter about the DJ Durkin decision. The DiamondBack. Retrieved from
Deloitte USA (2018). Game On: 2018 Sport Industry Trends. Retrieved from
Schwab, B. (2018a). Address: Third Annual Sporting Chance Conference. Reported in Staff (2018). Centre for Sport and Human Rights can empower the people affected by sport. Retrieved from
Schwab, B. (2018b). ‘Celebrating humanity’: Reconciling sport and human rights through athlete activism. Journal of Legal Aspects of Sport, 170-207.


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