February 16, 2016

Professional athletes in the era of social media are constantly monitored. Their every comment is scanned for quotes to single out and analyze on blogs and 24-hour sports networks. It’s no surprise that most high-profile athletes stay mum about controversial topics, and instead fill their profiles with pictures of families and workouts. Their careers, endorsements and sanities are all at stake. When asked to support a Democratic candidate, a younger Michael Jordan reportedly told his friend, “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Rather than meddling in politics, athletes support entire communities in conventional ways, making donations, visiting hospitals or youth centers, and participating in health awareness campaigns.

But social media visibility also gives athletes an opportunity to influence and motivate followers, and using their role-model status for a greater cause is in itself an ethical responsibility. With professional leagues primarily focusing their social media regulations on posting during games and critiquing in-house personnel, athletes have begun to take advantage of online freedoms to advocate on behalf of victimized populations.

In the last few years there has been a shift in the way athletes use their position of power, with many coming together to make bold, controversial comments. Through a top-down movement, NBA and NFL superstars began speaking out as unpunished strings of violence against black youth gripped the nation. Numerous athletes have been lauded for these efforts, but fan reactions to emboldened commentary have been mixed. What some athletes and fans see as an ethical utilization of prominence, others perceive to be an immoral misuse of power.

The origins of this social media movement lay in the Trayvon Martin case. Martin, an unarmed black teenager killed by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, sparked the nation’s attention and opened the door for an online campaign led by prominent professional athletes.

Zimmerman claimed that he had killed the teen in self-defense, but many people believed the incident boiled down to racial profiling, citing Martin’s age, lack of a weapon, and the hooded sweatshirt he wore on the night of his death. In the days that followed, hoodie-wearing protesters filled the streets demanding that Zimmerman be arrested and charged. On March 23, 2012, former MVP LeBron James joined the movement by posting a picture of himself and the Miami Heat wearing sweatshirts, looking down, hoods draped over their heads. He added the hashtags #WeAreTrayvonMartin #Hoodies #Stereotyped #WeWantJustice. On the same day, finals MVP Dwayne Wade posted a close-up photo of himself in a hooded sweatshirt to his Twitter and Facebook accounts. When asked about his posts, Wade told the Associated Press, “I’m speaking up because I feel it’s necessary that we get past the stereotype of young, black men and especially with our youth.”

With a combined 32 million followers, LeBron and Wade knew that their tweets would draw attention. Analyses of their comments spread throughout major sports blogs and news outlets, igniting debates over the meaning of the trial and the ethics of players getting involved.

LeBron and Wade’s support for Trayvon opened the door for more online tweets from professional athletes, primarily on issues of race and gun violence. When Zimmerman was exonerated of second-degree murder, more voices chimed in with expressions of disapproval. “Watched a lot of the case...though manslaughter was a definite! Thinking about everyone involved especially the Martin family,” tweeted current MVP and Golden State Warriors Steph Curry. America justice system is a joke,” tweeted Oklahoma City Thunder Kendrick Perkins. I hope everyone can see the BIGGER picture if this trial .. (sic). his story was heard, his voice was heard RIP Trayvon Benjamin Martin,” wrote Tampa Bay Buccaneers Da'Quan Bowers.

National conversation about youth, race and imbalance of power began to deepen after the deaths of two more unarmed black men, this time resulting from excess police force. The first, Eric Garner, died after he was put in a chokehold by a police officer, with his last words believed to be, “I can’t breathe.” Less than a month later, Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, was shot by a police officer despite several witness claims that he put his arms up to surrender. When the policemen were not indicted, an already turbulent environment grew increasingly heated, with protesters nationwide demanding justice. New athletes joined the conversation, voicing their frustration and showing support for the victims. The feeling of connection and obligation to speak on the victims’ behalf through condolences and, more importantly, demands for reform – were becoming less surprising.

Surely knowing that his silent demonstration would become a topic of discussion, former NBA MVP Derek Rose commemorated Garner’s death by wearing a shirt with the words, ‘I Can’t Breathe’ during warmups on December 6, 2014. Social media and sports news sites immediately published the pictures and analyzed his symbolic gesture. Two days later, Derek Rose spoke with the press, answering numerous questions about the shirt. When asked whether he believed more professional athletes should speak out about the case, he stated, “I could care less about who else weighs in on this. Usually athletes tend to stay away from this, but I just felt as if I had to do something.” He also mentioned, “I'm just trying to change the kids' minds across the nation, and it starts here. … I don't want my son growing up being scared of the police or having the thought that something like that could happen.”

The growing impulse to push for an end to violence culture did not stop with Rose. Nor did athletes continue to shy away from the conversation. Top stars led the way, but others followed in their footsteps. Soon NFL and NBA players across the leagues were wearing ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirts, including Detroit Lions’ Reggie Bush, Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving and Nets’ Deron Williams. Even college students joined in, with the Georgetown men’s basketball team warming up in similar black and white tees.

The collaboration that began with Trayvon Martin’s death expanded as a result of continued public anger about recurring incidents of youth violence and unpunished victimization of black men. An Instagram photo posted by LeBron in 2014 suggests that the public outpouring and its athletic counterpart was now a movement rather than a collection of disparate uprisings. The post depicts a cartoon of Garner and Martin walking together, hands draped over each other’s shoulders accompanied by the quote, “As a society how do we do better and stop things like this happening time after time!! I'm so sorry to these families. Violence is not the answer people. Retaliation isn't the solution as well. #PrayersUpToTheFamilies #WeHaveToDoBetter.”

But not all fans saw outspoken athletes as progressive pioneers. Many viewed the rising social media collective as an unethical intrusion of personal agendas onto an apolitical platform. What numerous athletes and fans felt was as a brave step into an uncharted, divisive territory, others saw as a misuse of power.

Among the most controversial expressions was an anti-gun violence public service announcement that featured several high-profile NBA players. The PSA was a 33-second collaboration between director Spike Lee, the NBA, families of victims, and Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group that focuses on legislation and education. Unlike tweets from superstars (which were representative of those athletes alone), the spot was officially endorsed by the league, in alliance with an organization that took a formal stance against the NRA. The piece was featured several times during anticipated Christmas marquee games and posted in its unedited interview version on the Everytown website.

The PSA itself was tame, focusing primarily on stopping gun violence rather than tightening gun laws. After all, who could disagree with the message? Gun violence is bad. Perhaps collective efforts by listeners and players could make a difference. And Christmas, a reflective time spent with family, was an opportune moment to present the encouraging message. Still, the timing and platform hit a nerve among select viewers. According to some, the NBA was using role models to promote a gun control agenda and veiling it as a commonsense, wholesome approach to keeping loved ones safe.

Founder of Gun Owners of America Larry Pratt naturally condemned the NBA alliance with Everytown the next day, telling Fox News that, “They shouldn’t be surprised if some of their fans aren’t gonna be that pleased and decide they don’t want to subsidize opinions that don’t agree with theirs.”

But the players, the league, and avid basketball fan President Obama did not see it that way. Obama praised the collaboration tweeting, “I’m proud of the @NBA for taking a stance against gun violence. Sympathy for victims isn’t enough – change requires all of us speaking up.” When players get a nod of approval from the president, they’re right – people are noticing.

Those who participated in the PSA and spoke out on Twitter empathized with victims and felt an obligation to speak on their behalf. The athletes challenged everyone, both youth and police, to cut down on their use of deadly weapons. Chris Paul told Spike Lee, “Being a father now, you always wonder, what if that had been one of my kids. ... The things that I try to do in the community, it’s always about kids.” Carmelo made similar comments about youth and living in a high-crime area, but he also spoke with Lee about access to guns, stating, “You can go around the corner and get a gun. … It’s just too easy, too accessible. And it’s gonna be like that until we decide as people to fight against that. … I’ve seen so many of my peers, so many of my friends, you know, lose their life due to gun violence. And now I’m in a situation where my voice can be heard.”

Numerous athletes spent their childhood in turbulent communities and are now utilizing their status to speak on behalf of those facing similar struggles. Frustrations over unpunished violence against black youth coupled with publicized incidents of gun-related deaths have encouraged them to take a stance on controversial issues. They may live in luxurious homes, but they don’t live in bubbles. Many athletes are listening to victims and speaking out collectively. The acknowledgment that began with one tweet of hooded teammates has now snowballed into a movement.

Paulina Haselhorst 
was a writer and editor for AnswersMedia and the director of content for Scholarships.com. She received her MA in history from Loyola University Chicago and a BA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. You can contact Paulina at PaulinaHaselhorst@gmail.com.