Should Athletes Talk About Social and Political Issues?

I’ve always been intrigued by the correlation between societal topics and the sports world, as well as the relationship between the mental side of the otherwise physically-based athletes. With present day athletes like LeBron James and Chris Kluwe making headlines for their vocality, following the trajectory started decades earlier by past outspoken figures like Muhammad Ali (rest in power) and John Carlos, the conversation about an athlete’s presence in social and political conversation is important to have.

With that concept in mind, I decided to pose a question to my Facebook feed, and the responses below are all real answers I received from friends.


Do professional athletes have an obligation to publicly comment on political and social issues?

“Nope, nope, and PLEASE GOD NOPE. Because they’re usually clueless about the issues and end up using the limelight they get from throwing around a ball to promote stupid causes. Athletes should focus on being athletes and leave the politics to people who know what they’re talking about. The same applies to celebrities.” — I don’t agree with this idea at all. To pigeon-hold professionals’ speech by limiting them to only publicly talking about their career or occupation is — to me — robbing them of their humanity and personality in a monumental way.

“Nope not at all. They can comment on issues if they want but they shouldn’t have to talk about anything other than sports unless they want to.”  I think this should be regarded as the base and foundation of the conversation regarding an athlete’s social and political obligations. I don’t think there’s any disagreement with the idea that players shouldn’t be forced to participate publicly in any discussions against their will, especially if the topic is one that an athlete isn’t familiar with. If an athlete does want to talk publicly, though, that avenue and channel should be kept wide open for the player to express his or her opinions and thoughts freely. Essentially: athlete choice is (obviously) an important factor to the question.

A podium ready for players during the NHL postseason. Press conferences serve as a way for athletes to talk in a public setting to fans and media. (photo source)

“If they are adept on a topic then yes, but we as fans and media have to be okay with their stance not fitting with the popular opinion.” — This comment raises the importance of fans and media members accepting and understanding athletes’ words are personal opinions that potentially don’t conform with one’s own personal thoughts. But, as the audience, we can’t simultaneously claim that we’re open to players speaking their mind if we only listen when what they say aligns with personal beliefs.

“No they don’t but I like athletes who use their stature to make statements in order to get social dialogue started.” — I agree with this idea. Many of today’s athletes have massive and influential platforms that reach and are seen by a diverse range of American citizens. I definitely respect when an athlete is vocal and willing to utilize their platform for good (or at least my definition of “good”) because otherwise, opportunities for meaningful and impactful outreach can go to waste. For example, in 2014, after wearing a “I Can’t Breathe” to protest Eric Garner’s death, Chris Paul of the LA Clippers stated that “we all have a platform; some people choose to use it in different ways, but people do pay attention. I have kids of my own who I’m trying to teach, teach them about the world and the community.” LeBron James, the league’s biggest player, and his Miami Heat team also used their platform in a subtle way when they responded to Trayvon Martin’s tragic death.

“Obligated, no. But for someone to say they shouldn’t because they’re clueless is about as ignorant as it gets. And someone should just do what they’re paid to do? I guess that rules out a lot of people speaking about anything. Who on earth is anyone to tell another person what they can say? Geeez.” — This comment is a response to the first comment about professionals staying in their own lane for public speech. Once again, I don’t think it’s fair for athletes (and celebrities, to extend the boundaries) to be boxed-in to their industry, especially if sharing and talking about other aspects of society is their outlet of humanity and personality expression and is something they take passionately.

“I feel like many of them want to but won’t because it would affect their public image.” 

(David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

Chris Kluwe, former NFL punter, who believes that the Minnesota Vikings cut him for his advocation of gay rights, amongst other reasons.

This is easily one of the biggest reasons as to why today’s athletes are not vocal about other topics in our country and in our world. Simply put, teams, ownerships, and companies that control an athlete’s salary do not want the athletes they represent to spark controversy in divisive conversations because it can severely alienate the team or ownership or company’s outreach. Players and athletes, I presume, also understand that concept well and realize the value in staying silent and avoiding public situations that could lessen their net income. Vocalness can result in controversiality and alienation, which can make athletes less appealing financially for front-office executives. Need evidence? Ask Chris Kluwe.

“We live in a judgmental society. I would like athletes and celebrities to take a public stand on issues they feel strongly about when they’re needed IF THEY ARE INFORMED. But, those opinions, even if they are what athlete’s feel, might not be well-received. Take this article for instance. –>” — The article, to summarize, hypothesizes that Stephen Curry has been publicly silent on North Carolina’s HB2 bill because of his choice of faith. If Curry came out and stated his true beliefs relating to HB2, there is a chance that it would contradict the mainstream belief on LGBT law today in America. That contradiction would inevitably lead to public anger towards Curry from a segment of the population, an alienation that Curry could avoid by simply remaining quiet.

And thus restarts this cycle of a debate: do we as fans want athletes to speak their heart about political and societal issues, even if their statements aren’t “politically correct”? And we don’t want athletes to speak their heart, are we really allowing players to speak openly about their political and social beliefs after all? And by the way, do we as fans really even care what athletes think about those issues and discussions enough?

The point of this piece wasn’t to make up your mind about the discussion or to steer you in one direction or the other. If anything, some of these points make the conversation even more complicated than it may have been before. In my opinion, though, that redefines the complexity of this conversation — a topic that, ultimately, may never receive a definitive answer.