What do Mean Girls, The Breakfast Club, and just about every other teen flick have in common? Jocks? And what do these jocks have in common? Nothing. Apparently that’s all they are; two-dimensional sportspeople with no substance to their characters beyond their athletic activity.

I remember thinking about this when I had to write an essay for a civic discourse class. Although the ‘dumb jock’ stereotype is a cinematic trope, the notions behind it aren’t all that far-fetched. Even in real life, many people think that athletes are nothing more than their muscle or athletic ability.

Take Naomi Osaka for example. Heard of her?

Naomi Osaka wearing a black and blue tank and blue hat during one of her matches
[Image description: Naomi Osaka wearing a black and blue tank and blue hat during one of her matches], via Danielle Parhizkaran—Reuters.
Apart from popping up on my news feed for her continuous wins at the US Open, she has also been the subject of many articles for speaking up and showing support to the Black Lives Matter movement. She has also been the subject of critics who think she should be doing the exact opposite. 

Last year in particular has seen a lot of activism in wake of the continued injustices police have committed against black people, as well as inaction in reference to the coronavirus pandemic. In light of that, many celebrities have taken to social media and other channels to make their voice heard and spread awareness. The sports world has also taken part with many athletes showing their support by staging walkouts and sitting out of games.

In August, Osaka announced that she would not be playing at one of her upcoming semifinal matches. In a social media post, she said “before I am an athlete, I am a black woman. And as a black woman, I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand than watching me play tennis…” 

 

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After this, the Women’s Tennis Association released a statement saying that all matches would be postponed. 

The statement, as well as Naomi’s actions, prompted a slew of mixed reactions, with some supporting the decisions to take a stance against racial injustice. Other comments expressed disappointment, saying that sports should not mix with politics.

Hmm…. Where have I heard that before?

For decades, even centuries, athletes have used their platform as public figures to protest injustice. From Tommi Smith and John Carlos to LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick, this phenomenon is nothing new. Especially considering that many of these athlete activists are people of color, whose victories as first-class athletes does not negate the fact that they or their families can be treated as second-class individuals. But despite that fact, critics still respond to athlete activism with some response pertaining to “stick to sports”. 

Sports have historically been marketed as a form of escapism, an island separate from reality. So I’m honestly not surprised when people criticize athletes for being outspoken. When an activity is viewed as an escape from the real world, its participants will undoubtedly be positioned as absent from tangible things. But – that needs to change.

Here’s the thing: athletes are humans too. And just like any other person, they have a right to speak up regarding issues, especially those that directly affect them. Just because someone plays sports for a living doesn’t mean that their entire life revolves around that. Sure, being an athlete and a public figure means that their profession is a larger part of their day-to-day existence. But that doesn’t, and shouldn’t discredit their opinion on things not sports-related.

The opinion taken by most critics about athletes like Osaka who have spoken out is part of a greater conversation about athletes and their participation in the discussion of political, social and moral issues, particularly those considered polarizing or deviate from conservative views.

However, the fact remains that there is absolutely nothing polarizing about human rights. The harmful and vicious effects of racism are real. Athletes’ support for an ongoing quest for racial justice is not a lecture. Instead, it is a consensus of support for players who are Black. Instances of police brutality and institutional racism hit close to home. If sports leagues do not stand up against bigotry during this moment of social upheaval, they never will.

When people claim that supposed social justice biased sports will no longer be a place for fans to escape polarization, they really mean sports will no longer be welcoming for racist viewers.

Athlete activism today is a powerful thing because unlike earlier times when they couldn’t speak freely to the public, social media has provided a means to communicate to millions of followers – which is no small thing. That kind of platform has the potential to raise awareness on things that truly matter.

Naomi Osaka expressed similar sentiments when an interviewer questioned her about wearing seven different BLM masks during the open. Her response: “What was the message you got? I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”

And people are talking.

I grew up playing sports; I ran track, and I loved every moment of it. But never for one minute did I think that the presence of my athletic ability meant an absence of my intellect or voice. Why should professional athletes be considered any different?

It is time that people regard athletes as more than robots, but rather humans with convictions and morals they feel obligated to uphold.

 

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Simi Segun

By Simi Segun

Editorial Fellow