More than an athlete: It is a new era and athletes won’t shut up and dribble. Instead they will inspire, empower and fight for change

Shut up and dribble.

No let me correct that.

Inspire and play.

Empower and play.

Unify and play.

That is the era of sports we are now in, and it is beautiful.

I have long been of the mind that professional athletes, with their audience and financial ability, should engage in social issues. In recent years we I have witnessed the birth of an era where athletes, across sports are finally coming into their own, becoming willing and able activists.

And I am proud to be living during a time in which this is possible.

But how we got here is far from beautiful. It is down right ugly.

Consider last week and all the ways that sports didn’t just intersect with the larger world, but actively inserted itself into the conversation.

The WNBA’s Atlanta Dream’s impact on the Georgia election by supporting the Democratic nominations. These women didn’t just hope things would get better.

The Dream’s players put the work in to ensure Kelly Loeffler, the co-owner of the team they play for, would not win a tipping-point election. In retrospect, once they turned on Loeffler, she never had a chance.

But why did they feel the need to ensure their owner, the lady who writes their pay checks, lost her senate seat? Because she did everything in her power to silence these women during the Black Lives Matter protests. They would not stand for it and went out and made sure their voices were heard. The results followed.

When Kenosha (Wis.) County District Attorney Michael Graveley decided not to press charges against the police officers who shot James Blake in August, the sports world, particularly the Milwaukee Bucks, led the charge in their dissatisfaction for the ruling.

The very next day, as a right-wing insurgency attacked the U.S. Capitol building, athletes didn’t just put their heads down and ignore it. NBA stars like LeBron James and Draymond Green gave honest, raw reactions, stating that there really is two Americas. They bluntly talked about the glaring double standard in how law enforcement treats some Americans one way and other Americans an entirely different way.

Head coaches Doc Rivers, Gregg Popovich and Scott Brooks also spoke out against the actions that took place in Washington.

Sports commentary means something different now.

Yes the debates about the best player in the league, and who is going to win the chip will dominate sports talk, as it should. But gone are the days of athletes, coaches and sports media alike ignoring real life issues. Gone are the days of shutting up and dribbling.

I get it, this is a hard adjustment for many sports fans to make. When they grew up watching Michael Jordan fly through the air, or Mickey Mantle hit a home run, that is what headlined the news the next day. Athletes political leanings, opinions on social issues, and life away from the arena, was a non topic. Nobody cared that Mantle was a drunk, or Jordan was a gambling addict, they only wanted to know how they performed.

And when athletes of the past generations did put themselves out there, they were quickly shelved. Lost sponsorships, lost their starting job, and eventually silenced.

Even Allen Iverson, the countercultural icon he was, didn’t venture into those shark-infested waters of politics or social issues. He might have looked like he didn’t have any rules, but that Reebok money was long. It was a bag that he needed to keep secure. That’s not even a shot against the cultural goat. Being outspoken isn’t a requirement.

Everyone can’t be Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. We understand that.

Fame has its rewards and one of them is the ability to shine a bright light on anything you want. Often, stars get tagged with the title of “leader” without having done anything to really earn it. Some shy away and some embrace it. Ali, Russell, Jabbar, all embraced it.

People always confuse the love for Muhammed Ali as being simply for his great boxing ability. But a huge part of his legacy, and one that will live on even longer than his boxing legacy, is his activism. It was something the sports world, hell the world in general, had been missing for some decades.

But we are in a new era.

An era where we recognize athletes as people first. An era where these athletes want to be heard and impact real life change.

There’s no denying their influence. Money and fame can move mountains if used strategically. There are issues, especially impacting Black and Brown communities, that require those who can handle the heavy lifting.

When Colin Kaepernick began his protest to police brutality back in 2016, he did chose to risk it all for what he felt needed to be done. He risked being fired, throwing away his 20 plus year dedication to the sport, the countless hours in the gym, for what he felt needed to be talked about and corrected. He shed light on an issue America had tried to keep in the dark. Uncomfortable conversations became everyday discussions. He did that and it costed him his career.

We can discuss if true, quantitive change has occurred since he took a knee, but we have to applaud him for his efforts. His efforts to carry the burden in the sports world and push back on systemic oppression and police brutality. His efforts to use his platform for change.

There are enough athletes from varied backgrounds — religious, sexual orientation, gender equality, class distinction — to ensure this doesn’t just fall on the Blazers black athlete to carry this burden.

As athletes have grabbed the mic via social media, they’ve been able to get their thoughts out on what they see happening in the larger picture.

If they see events unfolding before their eyes and feel strongly about it, they can and should say their peace. Whether it is a singular topic they want to focus in on, like Maya Moore did with wrongly convicted prisoners, or wide ranging topics, athletes should be given the platform to openly express themselves as needed.

My message to anyone pondering if they should speak out: Do it.

Don’t even stress about losing fans, because the truth is, speaking your mind will bring you new fans. Hell, better fans.

The NBA and WNBA have been at the forefront of this movement, but the other leagues are getting there slowly.

LeBron James gets his roses for his activism and unwavering confidence in calling out injustices. And he should. His work off the court has matched his work on the court.

But randomly enough, the Phoenix Suns, a team a lot of fans forget about, deserve their flowers, too.

In 2010, Arizona passed Senate Bill 1070, a law designed to stymie illegal immigration by classifying it as a state crime. It gave law enforcement the latitude to detain anyone it thought might be in the state illegally.

Back in 2010, before the sports world was truly getting involved in social issues, the Suns wore “Los Suns” jerseys to protest the bill. A mild protest, but particularly noteworthy since Suns owner Robert Sarver spoke against the law and supported the players in their decision. Looking back it was monumental in starting momentum towards where we are today.

Having players speak out is one thing, but the corporate structure of a pro franchise is generally risk-averse. “Controversy is bad for business” is the refrain, right? Well, being on the wrong side of history is probably even worse.

And that is a message NBA owners have seem to come to understand recently.

Last week the Milwaukee Bucks, not the players, not the coaches, the actual team, signed off by the owner, sent out this message.

When the Bucks refused to play in August, it had a ripple effect. With George Floyd and Breonna Taylor fresh on everyone’s minds, the Blake shooting broke the collective dam.

So close to home, the Bucks had enough and decided they would use their platform as a collective team to say no this is not alright and we are not going to play.

The rest of the league followed.

Every team canceled games that day, putting the playoffs on temporary hold. It was, as sports moments go, pretty damn major. The idea that pro athletes could assert a work stoppage has always danced in the minds of those who know how much power they truly wield.

As more players get comfortable in this role, they’re getting bolder. They’re getting right to the meat of the issue. There isn’t any more tap dancing around real issues in fears of hurting peoples feelings.

On Wednesday, as black athletes were saddened and hurt by the ruling on Jacob Blake, white Americans were rioting because their buddy Trump lost an election. It made it painfully obvious how there truly are two America’s. It was on full display for the world to see, it was just a question of who would put what everyone was thinking into a verbal assessment.

Draymond Green did just that.

Green was but one of several players and coaches who pointed out the obvious.

The increase in athlete activism was one of 2020’s silver linings. The marches, the engagement from sports franchises, consumer brands, will be a lasting memories I have from 2020.

No doubt much of the corporate activism was performative, but some of it will leave an impact this year and beyond. Undoubtedly, some people will ignore the thoughts of athletes that don’t involve a ball, but some of that will leave an impact here as well. You can’t wash it away now.

Players feel empowered and their influence, whatever it may be, is gaining momentum.

It is a new era of sports. Athletes, coaches and journalists will not simply stick to sports.

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