Sports and Social Justice in the World Today

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By Sean Serrano, CONTRIBUTOR
Looking at the relationship between sports and social justice and how two professors at CSUEB are involved.
Social justice is important to the fabric of the United States of America. Sports are an essential part of American culture. The two are at the forefront of conversation as leagues and players standing up for racial justice amid protests across the country in 2020.
There have been many protests during this year including ones for the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the shooting of Jacob Blake, all by police officers. The many different professional sports leagues and athletes have continued to protest for social justice and social change.
Those protests are part of what has shifted more power to athletes, Missy Wright, a professor of Kinesiology and co-director of the Center for Sport and Social Justice at California State University, East Bay.
“Just a few years ago, owners were against kneeling and now everything is allowed and we are seeing how powerful that is. You can see that the power has shifted and athletes have a lot more power. You can see the effect that has on TV rights, commercials, and rescheduling. That is so powerful. It makes people uncomfortable and that is a good thing. The status quo isn’t something we want to go back to,” Wright said.
The history between sports and social justice is a long one that goes back to the 1800s. Athletes and coaches have continued to use their platform and power to make social statements. Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Jim Brown, Muhammed Ali, and Bill Russell are a few of the notable names that have used their platform to advocate for social justice.
Colin Kaepernick is one of the most recent, more polarizing sports figures who stood up for social justice. He has not played since the 2017 season and still does not have a job in the NFL after his protests against police brutality. While it has not been confirmed by anyone in the NFL, many speculate, including Kaepernick, that this is the main reason he is still unemployed by the league.
Today, the athletes are more empowered and encouraged to speak out on these types of topics. On June 5, some of the NFL stars made a video to the NFL, asking the NFL to condemn racism and admit that they silenced players in the past.
NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, responded with his own video condemning racism and admitting to silencing players in the past. Less than a week later, the NFL agreed to pledge $250 million over 10 years “to combat systemic racism and support the battle against the ongoing and historic injustices faced by African Americans”, an executive said in a message to The Undefeated.
In a few years’ time, the NFL has completely changed its opinion on social justice issues.
“I feel like we are in a moment of heightened awareness that we wouldn’t have been in even just a few years ago,” Matthew Atencio, professor of Kinesiology and co-director of the Center for Sport and Social Justice. “The question that needs to be asked now is what types of structural or institutional changes will we see?” This was a major factor in the Milwaukee Bucks’ decision to boycott one of their playoff games.
On Aug. 26, the Milwaukee Bucks boycotted their playoff game against the Orlando Magic, due to the police shooting of Jacob Blake. The Bucks’ boycott spilled over into other sports as the MLB, WNBA, and MLS had games postponed that day. Every major sports league in America now has messages for social justice, players speaking out about social issues or increased advertising promoting social justice.
Tennis player, Naomi Osaka, forfeit her match the same day and has been wearing masks with the names of people who have been murdered due to police brutality. The demographic that Osaka is reaching by being a tennis player, adds to the value of her protests.
“Tennis isn’t used to having athletes take a stand and it is so powerful what Naomi Osaka is doing,” Wright said.
It is not only the players who have to enact change but the owners and the leagues as well. Much like the NFL’s monetary pledge for social justice, the NBA agreed to pledge $300 million over 10 years “creating greater economic empowerment in the Black community”, according to the NBA Board of Governors.
“The onus is on the ownership and league leaders to reevaluate their practices and policies and to move forward in ways that support the vast majority of their athletes who are expressing that there are serious issues both in society and in pro sports,” Atencio said.
We are in a time of greater social awareness for league owners. This social awareness helps to allow these types of pledges to be approved. People in power are taking a look at how they are treating those around them.
“Owners are feeling that this is a positive thing and society is ready for this. Coaches now are taking a more critical look on how they treat their athletes,” said Wright. “They are looking at who are my athletes? How do we treat their bodies? How do we value you?”
As a society, we all have to look inward and assess how we are behaving on a daily basis. Locally, we have the Center that can help impose social change through the vehicle of sports. The goal of the Center is to promote social equality in the local community and beyond.
“Any student can get involved in any project that we are doing or any program support that we are involved in,” said Atencio.
The Center has co-sponsored events with groups such as the Women’s Sports Film Festival and non-profit organizations such as Skate Like a Girl, Soccer Without Borders, and the Deputy Sheriff’s Athletic League from Alameda County.
This organization helps to show how sports can enact change at a local level. Sports and social justice are two things that have been intertwined for hundreds of years.
The Center will also be a part of the podcast space in the near future. “We are participating in developing podcasts in the next few weeks that will speak to a lot of the issues we see now in both grassroots and professional sports,” Atencio said.
The fight for social justice will continue and sports are a great way to get the attention of many people. With the perseverance of athletes and professors like Dr. Wright and Dr. Atencio, we will see a lot of change.