Why don’t we like political speech when it comes from athletes?

This is an era in which celebrities of all stripes — film stars, musicians, television actors, athletes, and many others — are becoming more politically outspoken than ever before. The reaction to that political speech is utterly fascinating, especially when it comes to who is ‘allowed’ political speech in the public sphere, and who is not, namely, athletes, who are routinely punished for daring to speak out on social issues. Why does society accept and even welcome expressions of politics from people like Shonda Rhimes and Bono, but not Colin Kaepernick and Megan Rapinoe?

Let’s be clear: There are some people who think that all celebrities should be seen and not heard, enjoying uncomplicated, basic relationships with the people who star in the film and television they watch, play the music they listen to, write the books they read, take the field in the sports they enjoy. These individuals condemn any kind of political speech or expression of values in any setting, find it unsettling and sometimes even upsetting to learn that the people they think of as entertainers are also people with opinions and thoughts of their own. And sometimes it’s unnerving to hear someone open their mouth and discover that they’re actually a pretty terrible person — but I still want people to be able to speak freely about issues that matter to them, whether it’s so I can learn more about them, or be joined by celebrities in fights for justice, or find out whose work to avoid in the future.

But more broadly and generally, it’s common to see Hollywood personalities, musicians, and big authors starting charitable foundations, having pet causes, and speaking out about them. Some are nice, ‘safe’ things that are pretty uncontroversial, like programmes to support literacy or help children with cancer. I don’t mean ‘safe’ in a disdainful way, because these are all super important causes and it is good to see them getting attention and financial support to improve living conditions for people who are struggling. I mean ‘safe’ in the sense that collectively as a society we can all generally agree that things like cancer are bad and someone should do something about them.

Some people are more bold, more outspoken, more controversial — Shonda Rhimes is unapologetic about talking about racism in Hollywood, for example. Even so, I see them getting praise more than criticism, though to be fair, that’s partially a factor of the self-selecting circles I move in — I’m not here for people who trash Shonda Rhimes or others who speak out about social issues in their field and beyond. I’m not here for people who do it to athletes, either, but I notice far more criticism of athletes attempting to invoke their right to speak about issues they care about.

I see sports teams held back in the locker room while the national anthem is played so that none will ‘disrespect’ the anthem by choosing to stand quietly, sit, or kneel. I see talented gymnasts dragged for failing to render the ‘correct’ honours to the anthem by choosing to stand at attention rather than holding their hands over their hearts. I see WNBA teams threatened with fines and suspensions for supporting Black Lives Matter. I see a slew of athletes speaking up about issues that matter to them as people and as athletes and being soundly punished for it.

People seem to have this notion that athletes, like teachers, exist only when someone is looking at them, returning to dormancy as soon as the game is over and they depart the field into cryonic suspension. There’s an attitude of ownership over athletes that’s extremely troubling, especially in the context of Black athletes, for reasons that I hope are obvious. And there’s a sense of deep fury that an athlete, a member of a collective, of a team, could have thoughts about social issues and want to express them, let alone that a whole team might join that athlete in solidarity or share that view.

Why do people find it so upsetting when athletes get involved with social issues? In some ways, athletes have an imperative to get involved, because they are such high profile public figures, and so many people look up to them. For Black youth watching athletes demand justice and an end to police brutality, those very public gestures on national television make a huge difference. For athletes who have been touched by the issues they speak out about, whether it’s homophobia or police shootings or attacks on refugees, there’s a ludicrousness in demanding that they stay silent, in insisting that they owe society the illusion of a blank slate.

People from all walks of life enjoy watching and playing sports, though many people seem to think of sports as a conservative masculine endeavor. Perhaps the reason people are so riled up about athletes who want to communicate with the world about the issues that trouble them is the fact that many of these issues do disrupt a conservative worldview, though, interrupting the notion that sports is about manly conservative men doing man things. There is a sense among some sports fans perhaps that everywhere they go, the outside world is intruding and interrupting their fun. They can’t even enjoy a football game without being inundated with political messaging.

It would be nice if football stars could enjoy the world without being inundated with, say, racist police violence, though. Not liking the sight of politics infiltrating sports is a sharp illustration of why politics needs to infiltrate sports, because you have to bring things into an arena where people are listening, not shout vainly at the gates and hope someone is paying attention.

Image: All Saints Academy Football, Josh Hallett, Flickr