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  • Writer's pictureHolly Corbett

A New ESPN+ Series Shows The Power Of Sports To Drive Social Change


Simone Biles with arms raised in front of a crowd
Simone Biles helped drive greater acceptance for caring for one’s mental health. AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Sports can serve to unite people in a shared collective experience as they root for the same team. Athletes can inspire the masses with demonstrations of teamwork, dedication, strength, and grit. Athletes also have the power to spark national conversations—and even movements—about some of the most important issues of our time, both on and off the field.


Take, for example, how Simone Biles helped drive greater acceptance for caring for one’s mental health or how Colin Kaepernick drew national attention to racial injustice. Sports is an institution, and institutions reflect our broader society. The ways in which racial stereotypes show up in the sports world and how they can be challenged is the theme behind the new ESPN+ series “Skin in the Game,” starring scholar and antiracist author Dr. Ibram X. Kendi and produced by Religion of Sports.


“There's a cyclical relationship in which regular, everyday people inspire athletes, and athletes inspire everyday people,” says Dr. Kendi. “And so there's been many people who've been inspired by antiracist demonstrations in 2020, just as you've had specific athletes who have been incredibly outspoken despite the backlash. People like of course Colin Kaepernick, Naomi Osaka and LeBron James. You have these superstars who are expressing antiracist ideas, and I think that also inspires other athletes to do the same.”


The five-part “Skin in the Game” series covers themes from how the “strong Black woman” stereotype influences perceptions of Black women athletes being considered polarizing when they prioritize their mental health to how Latino baseball playersexperience the pull between bringing their cultures to America’s pastime with the pressure to assimilate. It’s the first episode in the series that covers the role of athletes for social change that really helps illustrate the influence sports can have on shifting culture.


“Athletes are typically public figures, and public figures have platforms,” says Dr. Kendi. “Public figures can use those platforms to help shape public thought to inspire people to challenge policy and conditions—and many athletes have been using their platforms to do so.”

Here is a look back at six athletes who used their platforms to stand up for causes they cared about to change the game and have a cultural impact.


Bill Russell, NBA Star And One Of The First Players to Boycott A Game As A Civil Rights Protest

In 1961, the Boston Celtics star refused to play in an exhibition game in Lexington, Ky. after two of his Black teammates were refused service when they tried to eat in the cafe at the hotel where the team was staying. Upon returning to Boston, he used his voice to speak to reporters about the need to stand against injustice so it doesn’t prevail. He continued to be an activist, marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington and supporting boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s refusal to participate in the Vietnam War. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.


Megan Rapinoe, World Cup Champion Who Pushed For Equal Pay

The two-time World Cup champion Megan Rapinoe’s activism knows no boundaries: She has protested racial injustice and advocated for LGBTQ+ rights. Rapinoe and her teammates filed a gender discrimination lawsuit back in 2019 against U.S. soccer to raise awareness about the gender pay gap not only in their sport, but in all workplaces.


More than two years after filing, victory came when the men’s and women’s teams reached a collective bargaining agreement where they’d get the same pay for national team competitions and be the first in the federation to equally split the FIFA World Cup prize money. This fight inspired women across the globe to advocate for equal pay. “I want to make the world a better place. And I will pull that lever slowly, relentlessly, and ruthlessly, forever,” said Rapinoe previously in a Time story.


Simone Biles, Olympic Gymnast Who Helped Normalize Mental Health

The Olympic gold medalist who represented America on a world stage felt the pressure to perform and be perfect surprised her fans when she withdrew from five event finals at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Taking a time out to care for her mental health was seen as a revolutionary act and opened up an international conversation about prioritizing mental health. The sport of gymnastics is mentally and physically demanding, and takes its toll on young athletes. Biles a survivor who, along with other gymnasts, spoke out against USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar for the ongoing sexual abuse she and hundreds of other gymnasts suffered, contributing to the #metoo movement that put a spotlight on power dynamics and gender inequities.


Colin Kaepernick, Quarterback Who Used Peaceful Protest Against Police Brutality

The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback spurred a new wave of athlete activismdubbed “The Kaepernick Effect” that got national attention in 2016 when he first kneeled during the National Anthem as an act of peaceful protest against police brutality after several shootings of unarmed Black men happened that summer. While some other athletes filed suit and began kneeling in solidarity (including Rapinoe), the backlash was swift. When Kaepernick became a free agent and didn’t get signed by another NFL team, he filed a grievance against the league.


There is a cost to athletes taking a stand. “Athletes have faced retaliation from sponsors, from leagues, and even from fans for speaking out against somebody being murdered by somebody who's supposed to be protecting them or against voter suppression or widespread poverty,” says Dr. Kendi. “It is completely unjust for anyone to face backlash for demanding that humans are treated better in this world.”


Olympic Sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos Who Protested Racial Injustice

In 1968 following a summer of racial unrest after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated, Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith (who won the gold) and John Carols (who won the bronze) raised their fists as symbols of Black power and unity during the medal ceremony in Mexico City. They demanded things such as hiring more Black coaches and disinviting South Africa, who sanctioned racial segregation in the form of apartheid, from the Olympics. They were both suspended, ordered to vacate the Olympic Village in Mexico City, and received death threats for their protest. Shortly after, the International Olympic Committee added language to the Olympic Charter that stated, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”


“We're supposed to have the right to assemble. We're supposed to have the right to protest, but too often when we do, we get admonished or we lose resources,” says Dr. Kendi.


Not every athlete wants to use their voice to speak out about larger social issues, but those who do have tremendous power to help drive social change. Protecting athlete’s right and freedom to do so is at the heart of America’s values.


*Article originally published in Forbes

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