Over the past few years, society has benefited from a surge of recognition around issues of social justice, racial discrimination, and systemic racism. As sports develop a stronger foothold in North American culture, athletes are now often seen as the ones championing these conversations. Pioneers such as Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar helped spark a dialogue between sports and social justice decades ago, risking their careers in the hope of future progress. Today, those historic legacies live on through the current generation of athletes. Below are four athletes that have taken the torch from the trailblazers of social activism and continue to make systemic changes today.
Colin Kaepernick was by no means the first athlete to use his public presence and celebrity status to fight for social change, but it could be argued that he helped reinvigorate the latest surge of athlete activism. Kaepernick began his protest during the NFL preseason, just before the start of the 2016 season. A picture surfaced of the quarterback sitting on the bench, rather than standing, during the playing of the national anthem before the game.
“I am not going to stand and show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of colour,” he explained. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
A public uproar followed the quarterback’s choice to stay seated during the national anthem, with some accusing him of disrespecting the U.S. military. An often-overlooked detail of the story is that amid the backlash, Kaepernick met with Nate Boyer, a veteran of the U.S. Army and former NFL long-snapper. The pair agreed that it would be more respectful if the quarterback kneeled during the anthem, rather than sit.
Even still, despite his best efforts to show his protest was not designed to disrespect the troops, he drew the ire of many throughout the country, including a former president. Kaepernick sparked a movement across the NFL with many players – and nearly an entire team, in the Steelers – adopting a form of protest during the playing of the national anthem before NFL games.
Since his deal with the San Francisco 49ers expired, the quarterback has not signed with another NFL franchise. In 2019, Andrew Beaton of the Wall Street Journal reported that Kaepernick and his former teammate Eric Reid, who joined him in the protest, settled out of court for under $10 million USD after accusing the NFL and its owners of colluding to keep the two players out of the league.
In many ways, Brittney Griner’s (and many other players in the WNBA) protest was built off of what Kaepernick started. On the opening night of the WNBA season in July 2020, the Phoenix Mercury and Los Angeles Sparks walked off the court before the playing of the national anthem.
Once the anthem had finished, the players returned to the floor to observe a 26-second moment of silence for Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by police in her home in March 2020.
After a 99-76 loss to the Sparks, Griner spoke to reporters and explained that she would not be present on the court during the national anthem for the rest of the season. The seven-time all-star also suggested that the league could forgo the national anthem before each contest.
“I’m going to protest regardless,” Griner told reporters after the game. “I’m not going to be out there for the national anthem. If the league wants to play it, that’s fine. It will be all season long; I [won’t] be out there.”
Griner, like Kaepernick, pointed out that her protest was designed to send a message and wasn’t intended to offend others. The 31-year-old explained that her father was a Vietnam veteran and a “law officer for 30 years.”
Griner’s protest added to a 2020 WNBA season that was dedicated to social justice. Throughout the shortened season, players wore warmup shirts with “Black Lives Matter” emblazoned on the chest, while also starting a new platform, The Justice Movement and the WNBA/WNBPA Social Justice Council.
The protest that Griner helped spark has continued through into the 2021-22 regular season. On the opening night of the WNBA’s 25th season, players from the New York Liberty, Indiana Fever, Dallas Wings, Los Angeles Sparks, and Griner’s Phoenix Mercury were all absent during the playing of the national anthem before the game. Their absence spoke volumes, a lesson they had learned from Maya Moore, one of the league’s stars, just a few years prior.
Any discussion of activism in sports is fundamentally incomplete without the mention of Maya Moore.
The former WNBA player was a four-time WNBA champion and played for nine seasons with the Minnesota Lynx. She won the 2014 WNBA MVP award and, before pausing her career, she was averaging 18 points and 5.1 rebounds per game for the Lynx. No matter how you quantify it, Moore was a bonafide star.
But it was in 2019 that she realized there were more pressing issues that demanded her attention.
The former Lynx forward announced she wouldn’t play in the 2019 WNBA season. Instead, Moore dedicated her life to appeal the conviction of her now-husband, Jonathan Irons, who was sentenced to 50 years in prison for burglary and assault with a deadly weapon in 1998.
Moore helped overturn Irons’ conviction in court and he was released from prison in July 2020. Irons proposed a day later. Moore’s husband has since filed a lawsuit against the St. Charles County police officers.
Ahead of the 2021 WNBA season, Moore announced she would sit out another full year to spend time with Irons as he works through his lawsuit. Together, they plan to work towards their unified goal of social justice reform. For Moore, that mission comes at the cost of continuing what would’ve been a Hall-of-Fame career.
Hockey Diversity Alliance
While The Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA) is a group of athletes, not one single athlete pushing for change, the group has already sent shockwaves through their sport. The chair of the HDA is Akim Aliu, who rose to prominence after accusing former Calgary Flames head coach, Bill Peters, of hurling racial slurs at him while he was a Chicago Blackhawks prospect in the American Hockey League (AHL).
Following reports of former Maple Leafs’ head coach, Mike Babcock, forcing his star winger, Mitch Marner, to submit a list of the least hard-working players on the team (a list the coach then promptly showed to the named players, leading to accusations of bullying), Aliu added to the discourse by tweeting: “Not very surprising the things we’re hearing about Babcock. Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, same sort of deal with his protégé in YYC. Dropped the N bomb several times towards me in the dressing room in my rookie year because he didn’t like my choice of music.”
YYC referred to Calgary’s airport code and “his protégé” referenced Peters’ previous role as an assistant coach under Babcock with the Detroit Red Wings. A few days after Aliu’s tweet, the Flames fired Peters. He now coaches a team in Russia in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Aliu’s tweet thrust him into the spotlight and he has since taken on a leading role in pushing for change in hockey. One of the major projects the former NHL player has taken on is the Hockey Diversity Alliance. The group was founded in June 2020, amid the larger Black Lives Matter movement sweeping the world.
The alliance is comprised of nine founders and an advisory board of five others, most of whom are Canadian, including Evander Kane, Trevor Daley, Anthony Duclair, Matt Dumba, Nazem Kadri, Wayne Simmonds, Chris Stewart, and Joel Ward. According to the alliance’s website, the group aims to “eradicate systemic racism and intolerance in hockey.” As well, the group aims to “inspire a new and diverse generation of hockey players and fans.”
Specifically, the HDA has created what they call the “HDA pledge,” a challenge they have created for their partners that encourages more equitable treatment for people of colour in hockey.
The HDA pledge entails several commitments, including creating policy and rule changes to make hockey more inclusive. It also establishes targets for “hiring, promoting and partnering with Black individuals and businesses,” ultimately increasing awareness of racism in hockey through education and funding social justice initiatives.
On top of this, the group provides funding in several areas, including “grassroots hockey development and equipment programs;” “anti-racism and unconscious bias education programs;” and “social justice initiatives in support of Black, Indigenous and racialized communities.”
Since their inception, the HDA negotiated with the NHL but decided in October 2020 that they would operate independently.
Recently, the group partnered with Budweiser for an ad campaign and released “HDA x Budweiser Hockey Tape,” with $1 from every roll of tape sold going towards the Hockey Diversity Alliance.
Social activism in professional sports carries a strong reputation across the world. The current age of athlete activism has already sent ruptures through their respective leagues and began implementing systemic changes. Each of the athletes listed has played a part in this movement, but only with the help of countless others. Sports have become a vehicle for social change only because of those brave enough to ignite the movement decades ago. Now, athletes like Kaepernick, Moore, and Aliu are paving the way for more radical progress through the next generation.