To Speak or to Not Speak – The Quandary of A Black Professional Athlete


Sport and American society go hand in hand in today’s world; instant notifications are pushed to the cellular devices of the masses seeking to escape real life with updates on what certain football teams are going to accomplish this year, or what scandal this basketball player recently found himself in. In the same way we seek to escape political and social issues for a few brief fleeting hours, athletes look to do the same on the playing field. In fact, many athletes seem to exist in a world devoid of political and social issues (Kaufman and Wolff, 2010). Over the years we’ve seen many an athlete escape the “real world” of crime and violence, poverty, race, religion and other controversy to greener pastures. The world came to know of spectacular athletes like OJ Simpson, who famously supposed “I’m not black; I’m OJ,” or those such as Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, who merely wish to maintain neutrality while staying “out of the limelight,” so to speak.

While there are many athletes that shy away or flat ignore such social issues, there is a long list of athletes, of various race and religion, who have publicly proclaimed their political convictions through their given medium such as Muhammad Ali, Carlos Delgado, Steve Nash, and, more recently, “the banana boat” of Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade, and LeBron James. Athletes have fought for a variety of human rights causes such as racial, gender and sexual equality, unionization and workers’ rights, peace and social justice, freedom from political persecution, religious freedom and free speech, among others (Edwards, 1969; Kidd & Donnelly, 2000; Pelak, 2005; Scott, 1971). Unfortunately, if athletes use their status and recognition to promote social and political causes, they often find themselves criticized and pushed to the sidelines (Kaufman, 2008). Scholars have yet to analyze why an athlete, given all of the previously listed factors, would either feel more compelled or discouraged to speak out for social issues that may be viewed as unpopular talking points that could potentially affect their personal or team brand negatively. We feel that in order to understand today’s struggle for change that we must first briefly examine the history of social change our nation has produced over preceding generations.

As Americans in today’s society, we take pride in certain things that we perceive to define us as “American.” The ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness garnish our society and strive to achieve overall good for of our citizens. We started as a British colony, but, one day, we decided that our current life was not as it should be, so we strived for something better. Then finally, on a hot summer day, July 4, 1776, our little neophyte community of thirteen American colonies declared itself as independent of British rule, forming a new nation, the United States of America. This “Declaration of Independence” asserted certain human rights that have since been made famous:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

As time went on, America emerged as one of the new great nations, and its citizens began to carry on with their lives in the “new normal,” until, one day, another minority group decided that our current life was not as it should be. The African-American community strived under that same belief our nation was founded upon: that all men are created equal. Soon people of color (and those not of color) slowly started to bring about social awareness followed by social and political change. On January 31, 1865, the United States House of Representatives voted to approve the Thirteenth Amendment, thereby effectively ending slavery in a stride towards the good of all (Cong. Globe, 1865). Next came equality of gender, and so on, until we progressed into the society we are today.

In the same way that social activism was used in the past, today sports have been used to promote political movements and encourage specific political outcomes (Baker, 1988; Bloomfield, 2003). Many people seem to foster a sense of resistance when it comes to social change in general but even more so when an athlete is at the forefront of the problem. Although it is generally accepted when Hollywood celebrities use their status to advance social and political issues, athletes have long been expected to play and not protest, so when a select few athletes do join the political discourse and advocate for social justice, they have been likely to face a backlash of contempt and scorn (Kaufman and Wolff, 2010). What could be some potential reasons for this resistance and backlash?

When the color barrier in American professional sports was broken by Jackie Robinson on April 15, 1947 a new era was born, and opportunity to play in the best National professional leagues: The MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL, commonly referred to as the “Big 4” was afforded. Since the breaking of that barrier, black athletes have been put under immense pressure to have a voice and offer help to their own communities at times.

Today, black players represent nearly 70% and 75% of the NFL and NBA respectively, which some argue is an over-representation relative to blacks’ representation in the American population (Preston, 2013).

The Post-Integration Era of black athletes that we live in today has pumped a large allocation of money into black communities through entertainment and has provided an alternative route of making a high income living without receiving the highest forms of education. This sacrificing of a quality education for a chance at reaching the professional league is not something to be taken lightly, as a great number of families with rising stars do appear to do. Commentators have compared the current state of athletics in the black community to that of slavery and even the gladiators in Roman times. Black athletes willingly sacrifice their entire lives and degrade themselves just to have a chance to compete in the coliseum of a professional sports arena for the amusement of the white majority. This is not to say that black athletes are actually slaves, forced to become athletes, but rather that media and societal pressures make it seem to many blacks that athletics is the only way out of their current circumstance (Early, 2011). So when the black community puts pressure on these athletes that made a living off their abilities to speak about the mass incarceration of African-Americans, police brutality, extreme poverty, vastly underfunded education and a plethora of other perceived injustices, the majority of them may not even be educated on those matters.

Those athletes who are educated are often times again met with immediate backlash because for one, sport has always been linked with promoting violent, militaristic masculinity and a predilection for war, which is of high consideration when analyzing reasons for such a large social resistance to Colin Kaepernick’s social call to action (Jansen & Sabo, 1994; Stempel, 2006). On Friday, August 26, 2016, Colin Kaepernick was added to the long list of black professional athletes that have chosen to use their position of popularity and power as a platform to speak out against injustices directed at the African-American community. So why then, with all of this risk, would Kaepernick pursue this position? More importantly, why should he?

Bradley Saul, a professional cyclist and founder of Organic Athletes, has said,

“As citizens, we have an obligation to be informed. [And] one does have an obligation to be aware of injustices and to do something about them in whatever capacity. And if you’re an athlete well then you can do it through the tools you have as an athlete.”

The purpose of this current study is to examine what motivational factors influence black professional athletes to either speak out or avoid certain social and political issues.

Literature Review

On April 23, 2010, Arizona’s Republican Governor, Jan Brewer, signed into law the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act; this legislation required local police to demand immigration documents of anyone they “suspected” of being an illegal immigrant and “to jail those who cannot produce them.” Critics of the Act suggested this practice amounts to racial profiling and “would turn legal residents into police targets (Giardina, 2011). Among various backlash of this “SB1070” Act, the Phoenix Suns decided to express their displeasure by wearing its “Los Suns” jerseys for a home playoff game in the following weeks. The Suns’ Canadian point guard, Steve Nash, elaborated on his support of the team’s decision by saying the bill is “an infringement on our civil liberties to allow the possibility for inequality to arise in our community” (Coro, 2010). This was an early instance of racial profiling among police offers that was met with a sport figure and sport organization speaking up for their beliefs against a controversial issue of this nature, but it was not the first and will surely not be the last.

Nearly six years later, we have seen this racial profiling by officers of the law reach entirely new and extreme heights with the deaths of multiple African-American citizens that were construed as unwarranted, followed by the quick dismissal of charges that purveyed a lack of justice in the black community. Shor suggests, “some view the killing of 19-year-old Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, by a transit cop on January 1, 2009, as a signal event.” Videos of the shooting showed a white officer deliberately shoot Grant in the back as he lay pinned on the ground. The transit officer was indicted and found guilty of involuntary manslaughter; however, his lawyer convinced the jury, which included no African-Americans, that the cop had mistakenly pulled out his gun instead of a Taser. He was then released after serving only 20 months in prison. Even more of a catalyst to this national network was the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, who was eventually acquitted of manslaughter charges, with the story taking over a year to reach national media (Shor, 2015). All of these events and more spurred the start of what is now known as the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which, according to the founder, Alicia Garza, is

“A unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes. It goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black, and buy Black, keeping straight [cisgender] Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans, and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all. #BlackLivesMatter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black un documented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum” (Black Lives Matter).

While activism plays a key part in any social or political movement, education on these matters plays an equally pivotal role in communicating a far-reaching message that can facilitate social change. At the core of this Athletics vs. Education dilemma, Harry Edwards argues that black families have a tendency to push their children toward sport career aspirations, neglecting other important areas of personal and cultural development. He attempts to contextualize the environment under which black youths live, as a means of illustrating how they have been institutionally, culturally, and interpersonally disconnected (Lomax, 2000). This devaluation of education can carry over into adulthood, leading to attitudes that keep athletes from participating in ventures outside of sport, both personally and professionally. Education has been a concern of increasing attention in today’s society, especially when it comes to athletes due to the grossly high percentage of professional athletes that mismanage their money or their actions, ending up in financially or morally bankrupt situations that can end in the termination of their employment.

The counter-argument Michael Lomax offers is that this sense of being disconnected does not adequately support the claim that black families are emphasizing “playbooks over textbooks.” He even presents numbers of improvement among African-American elected officials, presidential cabinet members, school board members, city council members, and even mayors; however, unfortunately, this kind of upward mobility in middle- and upper-management positions in college and professional sport has not occurred. Even more disturbing, in both politics as well as collegiate and professional sport is that African-Americans have failed to make the leap from representation to empowerment (Lomax, 2000). This lack of empowerment has possibly contributed to the lack of black professionals in sport standing up for social and political causes. Of noteworthy importance in this article is the solution presented where qualified African-Americans, as well as other people of color, holding influential positions in sport organizations regarded as being essential in actually getting things done outside the scope of on-field play. Combined with African-American families actively navigating their children through the “sports terrain,” a new era of black participation in sport, both on and off the field, could emerge, furthering the education of the African-Americans in sport. At the end of the day, a lack of education leads to a lack of awareness on real world issues.

Another educational dimension of black athletes to observe is how the system may fail them at early ages. The images created of black men in our society often confine them to environments shaped by drugs, crime, athletics, and academic failure (Fries-Britt, 1997, p. 65). A study conducted revealed that many teachers reinforce these images and halt their efforts to nurture and promote achievement among black males as early as the fourth grade, where it has been observed that many young black males themselves stop caring about school. This research was based on interviews and focus groups that showed black male students were driven but “knew” the system was against them. In addition, black male students across education levels reportedly placed considerable effort into being perceived as popular and “cool” by their peers (Osborne, 1999; Stinson, 2006), and prioritized athletic aspirations above academic achievement” (Benson, 2000; Harper, 2009b; Sellers & Kuperminc, 1997). Athletics for today’s youth can serve as a replacement for peer pressures, and the benefits of team comradery can lead to a larger sense of community, resulting in the public disproval of injustice.

An article titled, Athlete Stigma in Higher Education, highlights issues that black athletes deal with frequently, including how others perceive their intellect. Athletes may believe at some level that they lack the intellectual ability to succeed academically, and this belief then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in which athletes try to avoid or resist academic situations where they feel inadequate by engaging in self-handicapping behaviors (Simons, Bosworth, Fujita, Jensen, 2007). The counter to this argument is that many athletes look to prove the stereotypes wrong by working hard, showing interest, and participating in class discussions. It was also shown that the darker an athletes skin and the higher the tax bracket, the more stigma these African-American male athletes received. Research was conducted qualitatively by a multitude of interviews with professors, non-collegiate athletes and collegiate athletes.

“The current prototype of an athlete for many in society may very well be an African-American football or basketball player. Fueled by the media, the African-American football or basketball player is the instantiation of the concept athlete, both at the professional and intercollegiate level. Thus there is a merging of the athlete stigma with the African-American stigma” (Simons, Bosworth, Fujita, Jensen, 2007).

This only fuels the public’s perception that professional athletes are unqualified to speak about what goes on in their communities.

Recently, black athletes have faced an enormous amount of scrutiny for their untoward behavior and have continually sullied the regard and expectations of the virtuous masses of the noble, “patriotic” public by showing contempt for the spectators, fans and for America itself, but there has been an evolving timeline for decades that tells an unnoticed one-sided perception to these actions (Harriot, 2016). Harriot emphasized that as a black professional athlete, you are not allowed to show any disappointment, as Gabby Douglas did, [and] too much black joy will also get you reprimanded by the self-righteously indignant, as evident in a letter to Cam Newton calling him a negative role model for dancing after touchdowns; wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts initially got WNBA stars fined and threatened by their police security; Derrick Rose’s “I can’t breathe” shirt made him a pariah; the St. Louis Rams organization apologized when its players exited the tunnel in the “Hands up, don’t shoot” stance, [and] if you decide to protest nonviolently, or how Muhammad Ali had to give up three-and-a-half years of his career and face the possibility of five years in prison for refusing to fight in Vietnam (2016).

Athletes want to be liked, but if their words and actions cause any ill-will or animosity from teammates, fans, media, and/or sponsors, some may choose to remain silent, avoiding any potential backlash. “Athletes today are often criticized for their aberrant and deviant behavior; however, when activist athletes act with integrity and sincerity by promoting social and political justice, they often face a hate-filled scorn and contempt. From being booed by fans to being banned from their sport, athletes who take a stand for social and political justice face intense backlash” (Kaufman, 2008). Roach, however, insists that there remains a feeling that black athletes are wasting a precious resource when they constantly are in the media spotlight but don’t speak out on issues of importance to the black community, which is a strong motivation for black athletes to consider in deciding on the impending actions (2002).

Money is another huge motivational factor in this decision to either speak out or avoid certain social and political issues. Athletes work hard to gain endorsement deals, therefore, the thought of losing them in an instant can deter them from speaking their mind or trying to contribute to society. Virtue ethics is a comprehensive theory of ethics based on the notion that persons (and organizations) have an obligation to aspire to noble ideals so that, when encountering a difficult situation with moral implications, they will be disposed “out of habit” to do the right thing (Laczniak and Murphy, 1993) Conforming to the ideal image and behavior of whomever is endorsing the athlete has been noted to be a primary concern for the athlete, and, if speaking out against injustices is not on the agenda of a certain company, it is an almost certainty that the athlete is going to reconsider their position.

Many athletes question whether it is worth risking their brand, sponsorships, friendships, etc., due to the unknown consequences that may arise. There is a tremendous risk when using your platform to vocalize social injustice issues. Accorded to Kaufman, “it is possible that the struggle to achieve a fully democratized sport and leisure might result in the capacity to transform communities. People could learn initiative, community endeavor, collective rather than individual values, self-determination, etc., that could permit them to begin to take charge of their own lives and communities” (Kaufman, 2010). When multiple professional athletes speak out about the same topic, the topic will most likely be at the forefront of America. Kaufman said it best when stating, “social change does not happen with individuals working independently; any and all victories for social justice and human rights have come about because of the collaborative efforts of individuals (Kaufman, 2010).” Any issue expressed consistently will be hard to ignore and miss. “When unknown community activists protest institutionalized racism, the system can easily dismiss them as no-name rabble rousers. But it’s much harder to invalidate professional athletes protesting injustices, given all of their accumulated social capital (Eklof, 2016).”

Research poses the following questions: “Where is the movement headed? Can it be sustained? How will it frame its goals? What kind of structures will house it? What’s next depends largely on the choices they make going forward as well as a number of external factors: how ruthless will the state be in suppressing protest? Will the mainstream civil rights leadership try to usurp the leadership of the movement? How much genuine and principled solidarity will Black Lives Matter receive from the larger left?” (Ransby, 2015). While oppression towards African-Americans is the topic of discussion throughout America, the reasons behind speaking out on social injustices remain unclear. We have conducted a qualitative research study to find the motivational factors that influence black professional athletes to express their dissatisfaction with the system.

Proposed Methods and Analytical Strategy

In order to achieve the purpose of this study, a qualitative method approach will be implemented in an attempt to provide insight into the different motivational factors that influence black professional athletes, both male and female, to either speak out or avoid certain social and political issues. Specifically, we will delve into past occurrences of social backlash, differing levels of education, monetary concerns, league rules/U.S. laws and potential results as it relates to sport, and if and how these analytical reasons factor into decision-making among black professional athletes” (Jansen & Sabo, 1994; Stempel, 2006).

The most utilized data collection method in qualitative research studies is the interview, and because Burns (1997) suggests there are several disadvantages to [the structured] method of interviewing, we will implement the semi-structured interview process based on the topic areas mentioned previously (see Appendix 1 and 2). For purposes of this study, interviews will be the sources of data utilized. In an effort to best access individuals with previous or predicted involvement in this field, to minimize expenses, and utilize time, professional athletes will be contacted through the Alumni and Letterman’s Associations to participate in individual interviews through video chat software. We anticipate that our sample of “members” will be able to shed light on the motivational and inhibitory factors that influence an athlete’s decision-making when it comes to speaking out, either for or against, social and political issues. Further, we expect this group to speak to the likelihood that community backlash, educational level, monetary concerns, or rules/laws, etc. did or did not factor into their decision-making. We are also interested to see how other black professional athletes have been affected by the social unrest brought about by the recent incidents of their peers in professional athletics standing for social injustices, particularly Colin Kaepernick and his national anthem protest, as they may receive warranted or unwarranted perceptions of the same or different caliber.

Our study participants will consist of approximately 50 individual professional athletes, 10 athletes coming from 5 prospective sports. The interviews will be semi-structured and designed to explore more in-depth reasoning in each particular stated “category” of factors. Participants for focus groups will be recruited through a combined effort of the athletic and academic departments at USC, and they will be offered stipends for participation. The data collected from these sources will be analyzed to provide additional insight into the perceived reasons black professional athletes either speak out or avoid certain social and political issues.

The investigators for this study will consist of Ph.D. students in the Sport and Entertainment Management (SPTE) program under the College of Hospitality, Retail, and Sport Management (HRSM) at USC who have been trained in qualitative research methods and will have the best access and most efficient use of time to conduct the interviews required for this research. Interviews will be audiotaped with the permission of each interviewee, and verbatim transcriptions will be utilized for the purpose of facilitating qualitative data analysis of the data. In the event a respondent declines permission to audiotape the interview, researchers will take handwritten notes, employing the coding measures for keywords and phrases.

Based on the multiple categorical questions asked within the focus groups and phone interviews, we will analyze how the predetermined motivational factors affect an athlete’s choice to speak against social injustices or remain silent. Our limitations included an unwillingness of the professional athletes to be fully transparent with their answers in the focus group due to the setting and several other participants being in the room, so we chose to only conduct personal interviews. Conversely, our delimitations include but are not limited to the exclusion of the following types of athletes: high-school level athletes, recreational athletes, other college’s athletes, and those who graduated more than 15 years ago. The transcripts will be analyzed through coding answer-by-answer and will then be put into categories based on similar themes. First, we will code the participant’s demographics: age, gender, race, and educational level. Next, we will read through all the data to gain a familiarization with key words and themes, therefore nothing will be lost when categorizing the data. Afterwards, we will openly code the data to include the terms: ‘racism’, ‘backlash’, “education’, ‘sponsorships’, ‘protecting your brand’, ‘government’, and ‘involvement in the community.’ Based on these categories, we will then begin axial coding with the specific codes from stage 1, linking them to stage 3, which will help clarify a “big picture” theme.

Axial coding will provide a new understanding of phenomena of interest and will determine if we have sufficient data to support our research question. Following axial coding, we will conduct selective coding, which gives us the power to illustrate our analysis in a way that explains concepts through our linked codes. Through our transcripts, we will pull direct quotations from our participants and find any contradictory as well as confirmatory data. Placing these findings in a social, historical, and temporal context will give us a careful generalization across time and space, emphasizing careful comparative interview analyses and extrapolating patterns for possible transferability and adaptation in new settings.

Due to the specific nature of this particular qualitative research, we must ensure that the data is collected by showing openness, sensitivity, respect and awareness in the various interviews, without introducing any bias into the responses. That being said, our objective for this qualitative research is to extract the data necessary to gain a more in-depth understanding of how perceptions of black professional athletes are shaped as well as portray the profound effects that they project onto others in similar circumstances and, therefore, should not, under any circumstances, be skewed or avoided. 

Expected Results

We anticipate that the results of this research will display the particular motivational factors that influence professional African-American athletes to voice their opinions towards oppression in America. More specifically, we expect the data will reveal a constant cycle of fear regarding the potential loss of money and backlash towards professional black athletes. By only reaching out and interviewing this demographic of professional athletes, who are rarely given the opportunity to answer direct questions focusing on life outside of sports, our research will offer the community a unique perspective on an athlete’s decision-making process. This study will contribute to the understanding of why black professional athletes either choose to speak on social and political issues in America or to avoid them.


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