We chastise athletes for their lack of participation in the community. We expect them to be role models: to donate money, time, and their platform to important charities. To champion broad, innocuous causes. For the troops. Against cancer. For the children.
But nothing too controversial, now. Being an athlete doesn’t entitle a person to hold any real opinions! STICK TO SPORTS!
But occasionally, athletes will venture into more controversial topics, despite the public backlash. They’ll take a stand and speak up for what they believe in, at times risking their life and career, to try and create change in the world.
Sports give us a unique space to connect with people from all walks of life, from all over the world. In recent years we’ve seen athletes like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James stand up to address inequality in the United States. But electing to use the stage of sports for something greater is nothing new. Here are our top picks for the most courageous athletes to exit their comfort zone and enter public ire.
During the 1968 Olympics, on the biggest sports stage in the world, Tommie Smith took gold and John Carlos took bronze in the 200 meter event. During the national anthem, Smith and Carlos, each wearing one black glove, raised a fist as a “human rights salute.” Both athletes were booed in the stadium and later expelled by the U.S. national team due to the IOC threatening to ban the entire U.S. track team. Today, their salute lives on as one of the biggest political statements in Olympics history.
Colin Kaepernick took a similar stand during the 2016 NFL season when he kneeled during the national anthem. His quiet sideline protest became national news when reporters asked him his reasoning, where he explained it was to address the inequality and oppression of black people and people of color in this country. Kaepernick’s protest caused ripples through the NFL and the sports world with both positive and negative reactions to his action. Today, Kaepernick is a free agent who has yet to be picked up by an NFL team.
During the 2015 ESPYs, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony stood on stage to address the racial divide in the United States, in light of recent high profile shootings. Not only did they call upon the violence and racial profiling to stop, they asked other athletes to step up and use their stage for change in their communities.
Getting out of the comfort zone isn’t just limited to individual athletes. Teams like the United States Women’s National Hockey and Soccer teams have stood up for equal pay and better youth development programs like those granted to the men’s teams. These women are not only changing the course of their professional lives and careers; they’re also ensuring support for future generations of female professional athletes.
These athletes and teams have used their likeness and celebrity to stand up for what they believed in. They did it to call attention to important issues and make the world a better place. Sometimes the best things happen when we step outside of our comfort zone and test the limits of how far we will go—and how much we’re willing to risk—to make a real change.