Both saw it just last week when, in response to Nike-sponsored track stars speaking out, the apparel giant vowed to waive future performance-pay reductions for athletes who decide to have a baby.
Modern social activism in sports is being driven not just by social media, which provides a platform for unfiltered thoughts and opinion, but also by society’s changing response to athletes’ speaking out.
“More important than the tools being there is that they have very prominent athletes showing them that there is a lot of reward to using your voice,” said Hill, a former ESPN on-air personality and columnist. “I’m thinking specifically of LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick. Now obviously with Colin Kaepernick, it cost him his NFL career. But that being said, he’s one of the most powerful voices of his generation. LeBron is still highly paid. … I think that [athletes today] see that those fears that they have that they will lose something, financially or otherwise, are unfounded or that they can survive if they really feel passionate about something.
“I don’t mean this to sound shallow, but in many ways they’ve helped to make activism kind of cool.”
Hill, Scurry, former U.S. Olympian John Carlos and a handful of other prominent sports figures such as former NFL tight end Martellus Bennett and Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud gathered at Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast D.C. for panel discussions focused on athletes and activism, hosted by the Atlantic (Hill’s current employer) in conjunction with the Mystics.
Carlos, who raised a black-gloved fist on the medal stand at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, put the current relationship between athletes and those traditional power brokers in sports — sponsors, leagues and national federations among them — succinctly.
“We’re challenging the power structure,” Carlos said. “We’ve been flexible all our lives. Now it’s their turn to show some flexibility.”
Many of the speakers ruminated on what makes this current moment stand out from sports’ long history with social activism.
Scurry, the goalkeeper who made the shootout save that won the United States the 1999 FIFA World Cup trophy, said in the case of female athletes, players are benefiting from a multilayered social movement happening across the country.
Scurry listed the #MeToo and #Time’s Up movements and the political forces that got a historic number of women elected to Congress in 2018 as evidence that the current social and political environment is one in which people are more primed to pay attention to the plight of the female athlete than they have been in years.
“Our teams — women’s ice hockey, women’s soccer — are deciding that in this environment, we could possibly break through. We’ve been fighting for 20-plus years on the soccer side, and now I think we really have an opportunity to have that gap close. If it’s not closed by our federation, then at least maybe it’ll be closed by our sponsors like Luna Bar, who came in with the team bonus,” Scurry said. “Now, something like that wouldn’t have happened necessarily 10 years ago, 15 years ago, but it happened now because this is the time of social change and getting on the right side of things. I think a lot of companies are doing that now.”
Carlos said he is encouraged by what he sees as a broad awakening among athletes who are more willing to both speak out against injustices and give back to their communities.
“Athletes are starting to realize now that it’s contrary to what Charles Barkley said about, ‘I don’t want to be nobody’s role model,’ ” Carlos said, paraphrasing Barkley’s famous line. “They’re realized that they’re the voice for the voiceless. They’re using their platforms now in sports across the world to make political statements. Social statements. They’re encouraging others. It’s a domino effect.”