Last month, I attended a University of Oregon seminar centered around activism in sports, which was part of President Michael Schill’s Freedom of Expression initiative to explore the limits of freedom of expression on college campuses.
The event claims that “sport has activism in its very DNA” because sport provides a stage for social progress that everyone can see. From instances such as racial integration, the right to opt-out of military service and Title IX protections for female athletes, sport has been a catalyst for change; however, activism within sport remains controversial and ignites debates on whether political discussions should have a place in it.
Although this seminar celebrated activism in sport, it also highlighted one glaring contradiction at UO: the silencing of our own student athletes.
It is unquestionable that student athletes trade some of their rights to freedom of expression for the ability to compete and represent their university on an athletic team. This opportunity is often accompanied with a scholarship, but this scholarship is not guaranteed for all four years. Instead, it is renewed every year at the coach’s discretion. This creates an environment where students are fearful of stepping out of line and losing access to scholarships that make higher education accessible. But despite these limits, there have been times when athletes have spoken out.
In 2014, Oregon basketball players Dwayne Benjamin and Jordan Bell held their hands up during the National Anthem before a game and appeared to frisk each other as the starting lineup was announced. Their actions took place as racial tensions began to flare following the killings of two Black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, by police officers who were not indicted for their actions.
Rather than being able to freely express their personal beliefs and explain their actions, Benjamin and Bell were not made available to comment, according to an article by The Oregonian. Head Coach Dana Altman criticized their actions while the players were unable to defend themselves.
“I think every player has a right to express their opinion; however, I didn’t think that was the time and place for it,” Altman said. “As part of our basketball team, when you put the Oregon jersey on, it’s a little different.”
But why should an Oregon jersey subject you to different rights?
Time and time again, university athletics utilizes its sports information directors (SIDs) — the gatekeepers who determine media access to athletes at their own discretion — to invoke unwritten rules that limit athletes’ abilities to freely speak to the press. Although the athletic department argues that these rules protect athletes from unwanted press coverage, this policy has routinely been abused.
This has happened in track and field when head coach Robert Johnson routinely denied athletes access to interviews. And this happened last year with the athletic department’s threat to revoke the Emerald’s press credentials after a reporter directly contacted an athlete about accusations of violence against former Oregon tight end Pharaoh Brown without the athletic department’s permission.
Although President Schill heralded higher education as dedicated to “rational discourse, shared governance and the protection of dissent” in his op-ed in The New York Times, he has ignored the stifling of discourse within his own ranks in the athletics department, and even endorsed the athletic department’s SID practices.
Although sports has activism in its DNA, the university’s policies create a glaring omission of student athletes from this activism.
Student athletes are first and foremost students. Despite all the glitz and glamour of sports, they experience all of the problems that come with being a student, such as rising tuition, food and financial insecurity, sexual harassment, hate incidents and safety. And their voices on these issues should be heard.
Student athletes are the most prominent students on campus because of their presence. Their faces are constantly plastered on TV screens, posters and news publications. With only four percent of students participating in the recent ASUO election, it is more likely that students know what the basketball team is doing than the ASUO Senate. Student athletes should be able to leverage their prominence to set the standard of what is acceptable at our university.
This was seen with the University of Missouri’s football players who refused to play unless the university president resigned over the school’s handling of racial tensions. Despite calls to have their scholarships revoked, the athletes held their ground and successfully changed their university to reflect the values of its students.
Allowing student athletes to stand up for what they believe in will lend our university credibility to its basic ideals of protecting discourse and dissent that Schill says it does. Threats of taking away scholarships or being removed from a team for voicing their beliefs amounts to a gag rule that restricts the marketplace of ideas that define higher education.
The right of student speech was famously laid out in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that stated students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” And they certainly should not have to shed their constitutional rights when they step on the court.
Athletes must understand that they cannot expect reform from an institution and anticipate tolerance from that same institution. This institution has a vested financial interest in preserving the status quo, and the last thing it would want is an honest conversation about the restriction of student speech. It is unlikely that the university will allow such discourse among its athletes.
But athletes should be willing to make a stand.
Freedom of expression is not free. It requires action, but action comes with consequences that athletes must be willing to accept. In order to make UO the bastion of freedom of expression that Schill says it is, we must allow student athletes to speak without fear and participate in the historic activism that has long been connected to sport.