The Power of Athlete Activism

This post is part of the Inaugural FOS College Program. Be sure to check out more about it here.

By Emlyn Goodman, (Cazenovia College)

Serena Williams is just one of many athletes who refuse to be silent on issues important to them. Photo via Forbes

Serena Williams is just one of many athletes who refuse to be silent on issues important to them. Photo via Forbes

Athlete activism can be defined as athletes speaking out on important issues. Whether it is a political or societal issue some athletes are not afraid to step up and speak out. Athlete activism has become a crucial part of athletics and the importance of their work can be largely underrated.

Athlete activism is nothing new and has deep historical roots.

For example, Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War, citing his religion as his reasoning.

You can also look to Olympic runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos putting on black gloves and raising their fist in the air during the medal ceremony to protest race issues of the time.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar spoke with Time about the importance of athlete activism in 2015.

He discussed how people previously felt athletes should remain quiet and not be involved or vocal about such issues but he felt those days are finally gone.

Athletes voicing their opinion helps bring large-scale attention to issues facing different demographics and groups.

When top athletes use their power to discuss an issue their fans tend to listen.

One of the most recent examples of athlete activism came from 22-time grand slam singles winner, Serena Williams.

In November 2016, Williams wrote a letter about the issue of unequal pay in tennis.

The subject of unequal pay in tennis is nothing new and became a large topic of discussion in early 2016 when Ray Moore, former tennis pro and CEO/tournament director at Indian Wells, came forth with a statement.

According to ESPN, the statement included comments such as “women ride on the coattails of men.” Moore even went as far as saying, “If I was a lady player, I'd go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were born because they have carried this sport. They really have." Days later, he resigned from his position because of the backlash from his controversial statements.

In the letter, Williams stated how fortunate she was to have a family that supported her dream. 

Williams expands on this by explaining that far too often, women are not supported and are even discouraged to follow their dreams. She states that women need to work together now to change society and provide support to others.

Williams goes on to directly share her specific thoughts on equal pay saying, “When the subject of equal pay comes up, it frustrates me because I know firsthand that I, like you, have done the same work and made the same sacrifices as our male counterparts. I would never want my daughter to be paid less than my son for the same work. Nor would you.”

One of the most powerful statements she makes in the letter points out a societal and cultural flaw that she feels is part of what allows the unequal pay to occur.

“As we know, women have to break down many barriers on the road to success. One of those barriers is the way we are constantly reminded we are not men as if it is a flaw. People call me one of the "world's greatest female athletes". Do they say LeBron is one of the world's best male athletes? Is Tiger? Federer? Why not? They are certainly not female.”

Much to Williams' point, unequal pay is not an issue specific to sports. When female leaders reach top positions or become one of the best in their area of expertise, we see them labeled as the best female and not simply one of the best.

Williams’ letter is a prime example of the power of athlete activism. In this letter, she did not just put the issue in the spotlight, she went on to provide logical reasoning for some changes that need to occur to progress towards the desired change.

The inclusion and acceptance of athlete activism is a welcomed evolution to athletics.

Democracy is not a solo act but instead, relies on the combined voices of those it serves.

Athletes are a powerful part of that as they provide awareness and information that might not otherwise reach certain people.

Professional athletes have become celebrities and household names and without their powerful activism, the world would be worse off. 

The Athlete First Person Piece is the New Press Conference