Where Did All The Activist Athletes Go?

On a stage in the heart of the University of Wisconsin campus, Aaron Rodgers had a crowd of 2,000 Badger students rocking. The reason, this time, wasn’t football as it has been so many times before for the Green Bay Packers quarterback. It was Congo and conflict minerals, Rodgers’ new-found political cause that he wanted to tell students — and the world — about.

That night in October, Rodgers added his name to a growing list of NFL players and athletes using their names and platforms to bring publicity to an issue they care about. Fellow football players Chris Kluwe, Brendon Ayanbadejo, and Scott Fujita had been doing the same for LGBT rights and marriage equality for years. NBA player Jason Collins came out as gay in April. Ed O’Bannon sued the NCAA on behalf of college athletes; current players protested the organization on the field in the fall. Brittney Griner is a walking symbol of gender-bending activism, Brandon Marshall took an NFL fine to raise awareness for mental health; Dwyane Wade and his Miami Heat teammates protested the killing of Trayvon Martin. More than a dozen athletes have spoken out against the Russian law targeting LGBT people ahead of the Olympics that will begin there in a month.

It may not be the golden age of political activism in sports — nothing, yet, has touched the levels of outright political and social activism Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos, among others, reached in the 1960s and 1970s — but it sure seems like there are more athletes taking a stand for something than at times in the recent past.

And yet, that’s only a handful of the number of athletes out there, and while athletes are quick to step up on causes that aren’t controversial — donating to charity, helping their neighborhoods, etc. — there are still few pushing controversial political issues, whether from a liberal or conservative perspective.

“I’d say you have to look at the proportion who are doing it versus those who aren’t,” Kluwe, the former Minnesota Vikings punter who began advocating for marriage equality during the 2012 season, said. “Is there anybody talking about abortion? Is there anyone talking about atheism versus religious thought? Is there anyone addressing at issues like that? And if there aren’t, what’s the reason why?”

That’s a particularly pertinent question now, just days after Kluwe wrote in a Deadspin column that he believed his activism contributed to the Vikings’ decision to cut him after the 2012 season. The assertion has sparked an internal investigation and questions about the perils activism can have for athletes who choose to speak out on issues that may cause controversy with teammates, coaches, and fans alike.

But athletes are, obviously, human beings with opinions and causes and issues they care about, and unlike many “ordinary” people, they stand on a platform that gives them major influence in American culture. The relative rarity of the athlete who speaks publicly on major social, political, and cultural issues would only seem to add to the influence they can have when they do.

Why, then, aren’t there more?

The easiest answer, as it always is, is money. Athletes don’t want to risk it, and neither do the teams or leagues for which they play. Professional leagues and their individual franchises are now major businesses that operate with a corporate mindset, and athletes are the most obvious representation of their brands. Any athlete who publicly embraces a controversial political cause gives people who disagree a reason not to watch, not to buy tickets, jerseys, or anything else. That mindset has already made leagues cautious — consider the NFL and NBA’s reticence to partner with the Obama administration during the roll-out of the president’s health reform law.

“The main thing (the Vikings) wanted is to make sure the team doesn’t get drawn into it,” Kluwe told ThinkProgress (before he went public with his claims against the Vikings). “It’s a very corporate mentality. We have this broad business, and we want to appeal to as many people as possible, so we’re going to try to not offend anyone.”

“You’re made aware of that as a player,” he added. “You represent the team. You’re a piece of the team that people will look at and say that represents the brand. Teams are very much aware of that brand awareness and they want to do everything in their power to make sure it’s not rocking the boat so that as many people as possible will come watch football games.”

Because professional sports are such a cutthroat world, rocking that politically-averse boat is an easy way to give teams another reason to move on to someone else who doesn’t come with the public relations headache. When the perception that engaging on a controversial issue can jeopardize your job, as it is with Kluwe now, staying mum is easy.

In the days since the most famous activist athletes were speaking out, that business model has only grown stronger. Many of the past activists — Carlos, Smith, Ali, and King — participated in individual sports and didn’t have to worry as much about the whims or concerns of owners, teams, and league executives. But even the activists who were in team sports, like former NFL running back Jim Brown, operated in a different business climate. As the major drivers of activism, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War, and the feminist movement, began to wane in the 1970s and 1980s, the business model of sports also changed. Television brought huge growth to team sports and naturally fed the more risk-averse climate Kluwe speaks of. TV and other developments like free agency also brought bigger salaries to athletes, who now make substantially more money even when they make minimum salaries than they ever could elsewhere. If sports provide more financial security than ever, it only follows that many athletes wouldn’t jeopardize it by speaking out and rankling the people who pay them.

“I think that had a stifling effect on quite a few people because they are worried about, ‘Hey, where else am I going to get this opportunity, and why would I risk it?'” Kluwe said. “Once you make it to the pros, you’re like, ‘Where else am I going to make 350 grand a year?'”

But money isn’t all of it. Particularly in the NFL, simple reality works against the idea of activist athletes even if teams have no problem with their actions. The average NFL career is less than four years long — the average career in other team sports isn’t much longer — and much of the focus early in athletes’ careers is simply on staying in the game. Consider Kluwe, Ayanbadejo, and Scott Fujita, three of the NFL’s biggest marriage equality advocates, all of whom were well into their careers when they began speaking out on LGBT issues. By the time Rodgers spoke on the stage in Madison, he was an NFL MVP, a Super Bowl champion, and no longer had to worry about his status as an established quarterback.

“You get to the NFL and you’re just trying to get your head above water and float and survive in the NFL, let alone take on (serious political issues),” Brendon Ayanbadejo, the former Baltimore Ravens linebacker who started advocating for marriage equality in 2009, said. “I started speaking out in 2009. I was in my 30s already. It’s so hard just to make it in the NFL, you’re not going to start talking politics and controversial things until you’re comfortable in your career.”

And then there’s the buzzword every sports fan, media member, and athlete knows best: distraction. It’s the worst label an athlete can earn, a career death sentence for any player who isn’t an upper echelon talent, a good way to alienate coaches, teammates, and management no matter who they are.

“I don’t think the NFL itself has anything against guys speaking out,” Donte’ Stallworth, who played 10 seasons in the NFL and regularly tweets and talks publicly about political issues from the economy to the use of drones, said. “I think it’s more so the structure of the team and not being in a position to be a distraction to the team. That’s one of the biggest things guys can get in trouble for — conduct detrimental to the team. You don’t want to feel like you’d be hurting the team or putting your team in a position where the focus was on something you said.”

Some athletes, Stallworth added, simply don’t want to deal with the headaches. He uses Twitter as his main mode of political communication and advocacy, and that triggers a multitude of responses from those who may follow for his football observations but disagree with his statements on drones, the Bush administration, or anything else political. Plenty of athletes, he said, may care about certain issues but don’t want to deal with angry fans filling up their @ mentions.

Though their reasons for why more don’t speak out may differ, Kluwe, Ayanbadejo, and Stallworth all agreed on one thing: none of the explanations should necessarily prevent athletes from using their platforms on issues they care about.

While teams may be averse to political risk, that’s often judged on a case-by-case basis. The Vikings were originally supportive of Kluwe’s outspoken activism on marriage equality in Minnesota, even if some of his coaches were not. Ayanbadejo and Stallworth both said that Ravens coach John Harbaugh encouraged their activism, even if he sometimes disagreed with their stances; in Washington, Stallworth said head coach Mike Shanahan, whose politics almost surely don’t align with Stallworth’s, never had a problem with the wide receiver’s prolific use of social media to talk politics.

“It’s all about how you word things,” Stallworth said. “You get your point across without (causing trouble).”

And though teams may still use the distraction excuse, the belief that speaking publicly about political issues creates a distraction is a “ludicrous” idea that needs to end, Kluwe said.

“When I’m at the facility, when I’m playing football, I’m 100 percent focused on that because that’s what I’m there to do, that’s what I’m being paid to do, that’s my job,” Kluwe said. “When I’m away from the football facility, that is my life to live.”

Ayanbadejo met with Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley while supporting Marylanders for Marriage Equality.

Ayanbadejo met with Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley while supporting Marylanders for Marriage Equality.


“I think maybe there’s a false sense of insecurity, where you think your job might be affected,” Ayanbadejo said. “But if you go out there and perform, it shouldn’t matter. It’s no different if you’re spending your day off with LGBT youth or spending your time in a poverty-ridden community, or going to read to children. Your time off the field is your time off the field. Guys have this false sense if they do speak out on those issues, it might take away from (their careers).”

As for endorsements, that’s a calculation players who have those opportunities have to make.

“It probably (matters) for some people,” Rodgers said of how endorsements affected his desire to speak out for Congo. “I’m not worried about losing those affiliations if they have a problem with what I’m doing.”

The reality is that the period of activism in sports often cited by those who wish athletes spoke out more was driven by major events and movements that peaked at once — Vietnam, Civil Rights and racial equality, and the movement for women’s rights. For years, those issues spawned activists like Robinson, Ali, and King. Today’s biggest social movement, the fight for LGBT rights and marriage equality, is undoubtedly sparking new rounds of activism, and the upcoming Sochi Olympics in anti-gay Russia could provide the type of moment Tommie Smith and John Carlos produced with their black power salute at the 1968 Mexico City games. The reality, though, is that the number of athletes who double as outspoken activists has always been relatively small, even if it’s easy to remember who they were and what they stood for.

While it’s impossible to quantify whether more or fewer athletes are speaking out today, more than a few are taking public stances on equality and other issues despite the constraints that exist. So on one hand, athletes still seem comfortable speaking out. On the other, those constraints may keep even more from doing so. Perhaps, though, the reason more aren’t is simpler than we’ve considered: not enough of them are being asked. Kluwe became a public advocate for LGBT rights because Minnesotans for Marriage Equality, a pro-marriage equality group, asked him if he wanted to help push their opposition to a state constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage as between a man and a woman (it was defeated; marriage equality is now the law in Minnesota). Rodgers came to the cause of conflict minerals in central Africa because Emmanuelle Chriqui, a friend and actress, told him about her own work and asked him to get involved. The current athletes who joined O’Bannon’s case against the NCAA were sought out, and organizations like the National Collegiate Players Association have looked for and found athletes who would challenge the collegiate status quo.

There exists a perception of athletes as dumb jocks, guys who play games but don’t think about much else. But most fans would be surprised, Stallworth said, at the amount of political discussion that takes place in the average NFL locker room, and at how many athletes reach out to people like him for information about the causes he champions. Kluwe has said that he openly discussed marriage equality with his Minnesota teammates; Ayanbadejo talked about the issue with Harbaugh, his coach, and had public exchanges with players like Matt Birk who held the opposite view.

If that’s the case, maybe more athletes just need to feel they have an opportunity to engage. And perhaps they should. Athletes have the ability to draw attention to their causes that few others, even those in other entertainment industries, do. Few people could have drawn 2,000 college students to the middle of Wisconsin’s campus to hear about Congo on a Monday night the way Rodgers did, and even on hot-button issues like LGBT rights, athletes can draw new attention and different perspectives to a cause, as Kluwe and Ayanbadejo did when they co-authored a brief to the Supreme Court advocating for the overturn of Proposition 8, California’s anti-marriage equality law.

That doesn’t mean all athletes need to speak out (they wouldn’t anyway), or that every press conference or interview needs to become a political demonstration. But given the role sports have played in major social movements in the past, it seems absurd that we wouldn’t expect athletes to engage in modern issues or accept them when they do, even if we don’t agree with their stances.

“If your societal view is that you don’t really care what goes in to making your entertainment as long as you’re entertained…that mindset, really, is a horrible mindset,” Kluwe said. “We should be encouraging people who have a platform to speak out on things that matter. If they don’t, who’s going to speak out on anything?”

If an athlete cares, Kluwe asked, “Why wouldn’t he speak out about politics? He’s educating himself on an issue, he’s trying to bring attention to something that’s important. What does his job have anything to do with that? We are citizens, first and foremost, of the society we live in.”

« »