Athletes & Activism: Why Not Speak Up and Play?

Molly Oretsky is a Communications and Marketing Associate at Knight Eady. She is a former student-athlete and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. With many examples of athletes using their platform for change in the news today, Molly shares her thoughts in the blog below about many topics passionate to her.

“We believe in sports.”

When I first interviewed at Knight Eady, I heard this sentence many times. The team made it very clear that this statement/mission/mantra is what motivates them. We believe in sports. We believe in its power, its values, its far-reaching capacity to unite the masses and its ability to fill our lives with unforgettable moments that stay with us forever.

ImageNow that I’m part of the Knight Eady team, I am also a firm believer in this statement, but at the same time, I can’t help thinking about what that idea really means. We believe in sports and its power to change lives. This makes sense to me - I think of the numerous examples of the power of sports beyond just the game. Muhammad Ali taught us “impossible” is not a fact but instead a “dare,” “potential” and “temporary.” The Florida Southern softball player proved the importance of human empathy when she carried an injured opponent around the bases so she could complete her home run. Personally, I think about how every Astros game I attended with my brother and every swing we took in our garage growing up made me who I am today.

Yet, I want to tug at this idea further. I’ve been privileged to have my life changed through sports. I’ve grown up in a family that could afford to buy me a bat, pay for hitting lessons and play on a travel team. What about those who are not so privileged? What does it truly mean to create change that is meaningful to more than just me, specifically through the power of sports?

Can we use sports to create social change?

Image So here’s my attempt to pull at this statement’s strings to unravel its implications, what it means today, what it meant years ago. The thread I found revealed a complicated relationship between sports, activism and the desire to use this platform for change.

“Shut up and dribble.”

“Stick to sports”

“We can’t have the inmates running the prison.”

I’m not the first to confront the messy relationship between athletes and social justice. Throughout history, many athletes have recognized the opportunity to use their platform and the mesmerizing power of sports to captivate and unify audiences to make the world a better place. During the 1968 Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos shook the collective American consciousness with a silent gesture that displayed an image of racial inequity in the United States. Today, the NFL is still reeling in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest during the national anthem that sparked both outrage and a player’s coalition to form for the pursuit of social justice.

There’s a direct parallel here right under our noses. Sports are inherently constructed to be better than our complicated reality. The escapism we seek from the game, its ability to move, inspire and motivate us, comes from a few key ingredients: fairness, fact, equal opportunity, sportsmanship. Image Sports operates with a moral compass at its core. The secret ingredient that makes sports so desired? Breaking barriers and previously held expectations. It’s the walk-off home runs and buzzer beaters, redefining what is possible, that generates so much passion for the game.

When players attempt to extract these values and use sports as a platform to stand up for what they believe in, to break a barrier and redefine the status quo, it is often met with contempt. “Shut up and dribble,” Laura Ingraham told Lebron James. “We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” Texans owner Bob McNair said in reference to the NFL protest. Pundits have repeatedly warned athletes like Muhammad Ali and Wisconsin basketball player Nigel Hayes to, “stick to sports.”

Advocating for social change using the platform of sports is not a new concept, nor is it one that is limited to the best and the brightest or the ones the media chooses to cover. The social responsibility is everywhere, and the public reaction is often mixed. In addition to the likes of Steph Curry, Lebron James and Malcolm Jenkins dominating headlines, WNBA players have performed walkouts during the anthem, worn T-shirts during pre-game warm-ups emblazoned with the names of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, held press conferences in the wake of police shootings and have generally been consistently outspoken on the issues even in the face of league fines, police walk-outs and relative media apathy. As the Minnesota Lynx can attest, these actions are often met with boos from some fans. Image Image

Hayes mentions in his Players Tribune article, whenever he “tweeted about something ‘political,’ ‘serious,’ or ‘racial,’ [he] noticed a pattern. One type of response “went something like this: ‘Thanks for using your platform to speak your mind.’” And the other response “went something like this: ‘Just shut up and play basketball!’”

We need to understand that the power of sports we often accept is convenient, unthreatening and protective of the norm. Even if that norm is dangerous to those not in power. We want to believe in the power of sports to change lives, but creating true social change requires accepting trade-offs. As much as we prefer not to let go of the conventional, we also understand “no pain, no gain,” (to entertain another sports metaphor). The greatest obstacle to change is the unwillingness to let go of the benefits of the status quo.

We are comfortable with the power of sports when it shows us championship wins, overcoming obstacles and moments of unity. Where we fall short is when it comes to getting uncomfortable. When an athlete uses his or her platform to take a stance that may or may not align with our traditional way of thinking (the confines we place around what an athlete should be), we retract to our fight or flight instincts instead of listening and discussing.

We have to get comfortable in getting uncomfortable.


As Hayes puts, “Never accept it when someone says, ‘Just shut up and play.’ Or whatever the equivalent is in your field. Don’t accept it when they say, ‘Stay in your lane.’ Let’s use all possible lanes. Let’s create new lanes. Each of us is more than just the job we do for a few hours a day.”

I’m writing this blog post because I believe in the power of sports. Because I believe that the image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos can permeate American culture for 50 years. I believe Adam Jones when he decries that baseball is “a white man’s sport,” sparking the need for increasing baseball leagues in more diverse communities.

When I was 9-years-old, I stood in a circle with my new teammates before my first game with them. Suddenly, they all held hands and began to say the Lord’s Prayer. It was that moment, I realized I was the only Jewish player in the entire organization. I stood there in silence. A pit formed in my stomach, and all I wanted to do was dig a hole in the dirt for me to hide in.

But the power of sports is unity, acceptance. It’s having your teammate’s back no matter who they are or where they come from, accepting and welcoming their differences on a path for a common cause. Image So, one day, I said something. I stood up for what I thought was right, and I got lucky. I was lucky enough that I was not told to shut up and play. I was even given my own time in our circle before our games to teach everyone The Shema.

We often talk at Knight Eady about innovating and reinventing continuously. Change is hard, especially a change in perspective. But I believe in the power of sports to show us that hearing perspectives that are different from our own is aligned with what makes the game bigger than just entertainment paired with physical ability. We like to believe that the game is open to anyone. The name on the front of the jersey trumps the one on the back. The players on the bench matter as much as the players on the field.

Why not speak up and play?

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