Political and Social Activism and the Black Athlete

By : Kylan W. Watson

As the gavel came down in the summer of 2013, marking the end of the Trayvon Martin case, a new day had started for many athletes. Different African-American athletes from football and basketball were reacting to the verdict in real time by using their Twitter accounts.  Many were sickened by the verdict reached by the jury; which was that George Zimmerman was found not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin.  The most notable Twitter response came from Miami Heat Guard Dwayne Wade when he said, “What do I tell my boys about justice in America?”  The Trayvon Martin verdict brought many athletes to become active and call for peace from the black community. Dwayne Wade and Lebron James got their teammates together from the Miami Heat to take a picture in black hooded sweatshirts in support of the Martin family.

The African-American athlete of today has a much different role to play when it comes to political and social activism than he or she had in the sixties and seventies. Black athletes are very important to the black community, and if they become more socially and politically active they can bring attention to issues that maybe out of the eyes of the media.  They can also lend their power of influence as well.

Black athletes have many responsibilities beyond playing their respective sports.  Many African-American teenagers look up to them, and as a result of this a lot of members of the African-American community expect black athletes to speak out on issues of importance to the black community.  However, since Michael Jordan’s 1990 comment about Republicans, “Republicans buy sneakers too,” many people have thought that the only thing black athletes care about is their bottom line.

“Many people think black athletes only care about their bottom line and want the black athlete of the sixties and seventies,” said Dave Zirin an editor for Edge of Sports on 10/17.  “Many people forget that the sixties and seventies were a very political time with the civil rights movement and other human rights movements taken place.  So basically if you were an athlete at that time you were a political athlete like Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, and Jim Brown. All of those athletes had to be political because the time called for it.”

The black athlete had very different expectations from the public in the sixties and seventies than they do now. Back in this era African-Americans were fighting for equal rights and many black athletes had a higher profile than they have now because of the civil rights movement.

Some athletes faced punishment for supporting their race. In 1968, during the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, two black track and field athletes named Tommie Smith and John Carlos were a part of the 1968 United States Men’s Track and Field Team. They won the Gold and bronze medal respectively, and on the podium during the playing of the national anthem both raised their right fist in the air. This right fist in the air was a symbol of the black power movement. Smith and Carlos were stripped of their medals and ostracized from the sport.


Many black athletes of today are getting behind different causes, they just do not make it known publicly. Dwayne Wade won a humanitarian award from Black Entertainment Television over the summer. He won the award for his work with his charity Wade’s World Foundation, an organization that helps inner city youth from Chicago get educated and play basketball. Wade grew up in inner city Chicago and is a champion on the court, but also a champion off of it. Wade does a lot of work to help inner city youth in Chicago. Unlike Wade, these young men and women may not have a way out through the sport of basketball.  His teammate Lebron James has a charity in Akron, Ohio, where he grew up, to help inner city youth get educated and learn other skills that will help them in life. He also supports environmental causes. During the season he bikes to home games in Miami, Florida, instead of driving, and he encourages many people to just ride their bikes if they can instead of driving. So the black athletes of today have been politically active, they just do not make it known through the media.


Younger athletes who are in college look at activism very differently. Some of them are very involved, but cannot always be active in supporting causes due to being a student first and an athlete second.  However, these younger generations of athletes are participating in different community service projects, and because of the college environment are involved in a lot more things when they are not in season.

Being active and making a difference in their communities are two things that most athletes want to do. The different cities and places they come from are very important to these athletes. It informs their world view and for a lot of black athletes they come from poor communities.  For a lot of black athletes playing a sport was the only way for them to escape their environment.  Even though this is the case for most of them, after the Trayvon Martin case a lot of these athletes were front and center through their social media accounts showing their support for the Martin family. The case shined a light on athletes who have been active in giving back to their communities and brought them to a national issue that involved race and politics.  Many black athletes have been very active in giving back to their communities they just have not made it known publicly, and one verdict from a controversial case illuminated a political and social activism for black athletes that has not been seen since the end of the 20th century.

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