In her U.S. Open run that concluded Saturday, tennis champion Naomi Osaka wore a different protective mask before each of her matches, bearing the names of Black men, women and children who died in encounters with police or were killed by alleged racist violence.
These athletes make their living playing sports — scoring touchdowns or hitting winners — but that’s not the only work they’re doing. They’re performing emotional labor that’s less-often asked of athletes who aren’t of color, balancing the expectations of performing on the field with the obligations of their activism — accepting the obligations, and the costs, of being more than just sports heroes.
Long before LeBron James recast Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s “shut up and dribble” rebuke into the “More Than an Athlete” mantra, Black athletes have embraced the duality of their profession and their convictions. From the gathering at the Cleveland Summit in 1967 in support of Muhammad Ali’s stand against serving in the Vietnam War to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s 1996 NBA national anthem boycott, Black athletes have consistently taken on the role — the job — of leveraging their platforms in sports to fight injustice.
Understanding their influence, many Black athletes see this as a duty. Years ago, Abdul-Rauf explained his view that as a religious person, “you can’t be for God and for oppression.” Looking back, he says: “I stood on principles. To me, that is worth more than wealth and fame.”
But it’s still an added burden on top of the demands of being a high-profile competitor. And it’s an obligation that, at times, runs counter to the demands of their employers, who often expect Black athletes to appeal to the broadest possible audience, regardless of their obligations of conscience. That decision doesn’t come without social and financial consequences: Abdul-Rauf’s NBA career suffered. Eric Reid, who knelt for the anthem alongside San Francisco 49ers teammate Colin Kaepernick in 2016, remained unsigned by any NFL team this week, even though he’s still a defensive standout and despite league commissioner Roger Goodell saying in August that he wishes pro football “had listened earlier” to their protest.
For others, it means mental exhaustion: In a recent interview, NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley underscored Black athletes’ fatigue and stress: “White players — they’ve been amazing, but they don’t live with the pressure that these young Black guys are going through every day. … There is a double standard when you are Black, because I have to comment on everything that happens in the Black community.”
He was describing emotional labor — the work on top of your work — which sociologist Arlie Hochschild has defined as “work, for which you’re paid, which centrally involves trying to feel the right feeling for the job” and “involves evoking and suppressing feelings.” It’s the management of emotions to fit your occupation’s expectations, and in the context that Barkley outlines, it’s the job of navigating the expectations of celebrity with the demands of social consciousness.
Ingrained in many Black athletes is an understanding that they have a duty to stand on principle, particularly if they’ve earned a platform. To them, speaking out is something they must do. I never went pro, but as a Black collegiate athlete, I was quite aware of this obligation, in part because of what had been instilled in me at a young age by my parents and elders — that we live in a society that would require me to be twice as good to succeed in the face of persistent racial discrimination. I was taught that my actions would reflect not only on me as an individual but on other Black people, with my decisions potentially affecting how others were perceived and affecting the opportunities they would have. It’s a heavy responsibility, but one I took seriously and carried into my professional life.
For the highest-profile Black athletes, this responsibility can be a Catch-22.
They’re performing this emotional labor in the public eye, where their words and deeds are routinely scrutinized, with their financial compensation contingent not only on winning but on their marketability. Kaepernick’s football career suffered not only because of charges that he was unpatriotic but because of the pernicious view that he owed fans his silence: When he started kneeling for the anthem, he was called an “ungrateful millionaire” who should collect his paycheck and keep quiet for his fans. But that’s missing the point — as Kaepernick said, because “it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”
And it can go the other way. Michael Jordan was famously quoted in the early 1990s saying “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” as an apparent shorthand for explaining why he wasn’t as outspoken about racial and social issues as other athletes. He avoided the pushback that would later hurt Kaepernick’s career, but it opened him to a different critique. His political agnosticism was perceived as a dereliction of duty by many in the Black community, and the charge dogged Jordan for years, including when basketball legend and activist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar accusing Jordan of choosing “commerce over conscience.”
Even Osaka, who was applauded for her stand, showed the fatigue that Barkley conveyed, responding to an interviewer’s “What was the message you wanted to send?” question with a polite but exasperated volley: “Well, what was the message that you got?”
These Black athletes don’t see themselves as merely performers but as leaders with a duty to use their celebrity to help others, even if that’s not something written into their contracts. They accept this responsibility, aware of the resistance they’ll get from booing fans or disapproving team owners. So, acceptance notwithstanding, let’s be clear about what this is — added work, added pressure and added risk to career. It’s not a distraction, misplaced politics or an expression of ungratefulness. While it is emotional labor freely taken, it’s a weight nonetheless. These athletes don’t acquiesce to “shut up and dribble,” because they know that racial- and social-justice work is too important, that the consequences of inaction are too great, and because so many feel that activism is part of their job.