“Athlete Activism and Social Change: Sport and Racial Politics” panel in the Grand Ballroom at the University of Maryland, College Park. Featured in photo (from left to right): Kevin Blackistone, Damion Thomas, Grant Farred, Ben Carrington, David Zirin, Diane Roberts. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Oyefusi/The Left Bench).

Experts in sports and politics give their take on athlete activism

In the last few years, the political scene and sports world have intersected, with some of the biggest athletes speaking out about social issues.


However, this wave is nothing new.


“This idea that sports and social issues go together are at the foundation of the sports system in the United States,” said Damion Thomas, curator of sports at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “When it comes to African-American athletes, it’s also the case.”


This was one of many takes from experts of sports and politics at the Thursday night “Athlete Activism and Social Change: Sport and Racial Politics” panel in the Grand Ballroom at the University of Maryland, College Park.


Moderated by ESPN panelist Kevin Blackistone, the panel included Thomas, Diane Roberts, sports reporter for WUSA9; Dave Zirin, sports correspondent for The Nation; Ben Carrington, associate professor of Sociology and Journalism at the University of South Carolina; and Grant Farred, professor of Africana Studies and English at Cornell University.


The panelists came with varying backgrounds in covering sports and politics. From Zirin — who has penned multiple pieces regarding the intersection of the two — to Carrington, who has studied and written about sports and culture, the panel displayed a wide range of knowledge on the progression of athlete activism.


Panelists said the increase in activism has taken place since the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin. After a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering the Florida teen, the Miami Heat posed as a team with hoodies up to pay respects to Martin.


Carrington mentioned that other big-name athletes were vocal decades ago.


“When Muhammad Ali passed, there was a discussion about the reason he was important, that he transcended sports into politics,” Carrington said. “I would actually reverse it to say that he showed that sports were inherently political.”


With the increased popularity of social media, as well as player-owned media platforms like LeBron James’ Undisputed, access to a player’s thoughts has been as easy as ever.


“Athletes are able to go around the filter and speak directly to their fans,” Zirin said.


“Social media has changed mainstream media,” Roberts said. “It makes it different because they can bring the message to you without the media having to ask.”


Many have pointed to President Donald Trump as being a catalyst for athlete activism. His comments about NFL owners needing to fire players that kneeled during the national anthem resulted in the highest number of demonstrations the following week. However, Farred found Trump’s views to be some that are long standing within certain parts of the country.


“This racist depiction of African-Americans is simply the latest articulation of that [view],” Farred said.


Now, with athlete activism at an all-time high, many have wondered what is next for the athletes. While these players are active in their community and calling for change, Thomas believed we may see a decline in political activism soon.


“Where athletes have done a tremendous job of drawing attention to these issues, what we haven’t seen is a corresponding engagement from the masses and leaders,” Thomas said. “What’s the payout for athletes to continue to make these sacrifices?”