Here are the highlights from a day of conversations around activism in sports
At three different events throughout Tuesday, May 8, the University of Oregon hosted discussions about social activism in sports. People who have dedicated their lives to the world of sports talked about the growing tension that athletes, coaches and sports business professionals are creating through provocative uses of free speech.
Here are the highlights of the day:
At 10 a.m., UO alum Jordan Kent, who lettered in three sports while at UO and was then drafted to the Seattle Seahawks in 2007, moderated a discussion among two current UO student-athletes and one alum: Darya Kaboli-Nejad, a student softball player majoring in international studies, Mick Stanovsek, a student track and field runner majoring in advertising, and Johnny Ragin III, a former UO football player who played for the Tennessee Titans after graduating.
When Kent asked the panel why sports have evolved into platforms for activism, Kaboli-Nejad said there is no other option for her. “I chose to be an athlete. I didn’t choose to be brown.” She said that when people ask if she’s an activist, she says it’s not a choice, but it’s her life.
The same could be said for many athletes of color throughout history, notably Jackie Robinson whose playing baseball in the MLB was activism in itself, or the more recent case of Colin Kaepernick deciding to sit or kneel during the national anthem at football games.
Ragin III said that athletes are given a platform and it’s irresponsible not to use it. “A lot of athletes say they didn’t choose it,” he said, but he continued by saying that not to use the platform is to sacrifice a gift.
So why wouldn’t these student athletes capitalize on that platform and speak up about social issues? The three of them said that because the UO and the NCAA are businesses, they are risk averse and would usually prefer for athletes to keep away from controversial issues. Stanovsek said the feeling in the UO athletic department is for students to “stay in their lane.”
Whitney Wagoner, the director for UO’s sports marketing program, responded from the audience and said she hopes that any student who comes forward with an idea will be met with an open mind.
At 1 p.m., Wagoner moderated a panel discussion about the impact of activism on the business side of the sports industry. The panelists included Kristel Wissel, the vice president of community relations for the Portland Timbers, Mike Nakajima, who worked with Nike tennis for 27 years, David Higdon, the head of communication for NASCAR, and Brian Berger, the founder of the Sports PR Summit.
The conversation focused on the campaigns that companies and teams decide, or decide not, to run. For example, Nike launched a campaign for equality in 2017, and the Portland Timbers and Thorns, the Portland women’s soccer team, were the first US teams to support same sex marriage.
Higdon said what has changed over time is that there is a greater expectation for athletes and sports franchises to stand up for social issues. He said how sports can lead the way in such issues by making an example of the combined North and South Korean women’s hockey team that competed in the olympics, a foreshadow to the meeting of leaders from each country.
The reason an organization wouldn’t take a stand on an issue, according to Higdon, is because its stakeholders and sponsors are worried.
“Ninety-five percent of the discussions never make it to the public, and it’s primarily driven by sponsors who are uncomfortable with teams or athletes making statements,” Higdon said.
Berger said that when an athlete or a franchise makes a statement, they need to have a purpose.
“If you’re going to protest something, give me the direct goals so I know that we’re going to accomplish those things,” Berger said. “If Colin is going to kneel, I’m going to need to know why. Don’t just protest to protest.”
At 4 p.m. the final event of the day took place at the Ford Alumni Center. Dr. Harry Edwards answered question from two UO professors at the Keynote Address and Reception: “From Robinson to Kaepernick: The Evolution of Athlete Activism.”
Edwards organized the Olympic Project for Human rights, which motivated two African-American athletes to do a Black Power Salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Sociology at San Jose State University and also got a PHD in Sociology at Cornell. At age 76, he works as professor of Sociology at University of California Berkeley.
The talk focused on the history of activism in sports through the eyes of Edwards and discussed how athletes today can use their position to fight against things like white supremacy and sexism.
Edwards said that when it comes to modern athlete activism, “Kaepernick is this generation’s Muhammad Ali.” Ali spoke out against the Vietnam war during his career and went to support other humanitarian causes later in his life.
Casey Crowley, Ryan Nguyen and Michael Tobin contributed reporting.
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