Long ago, I helped organize a demonstration that drew about 10,000 people. Although all of the key organizers, who spent months in meetings and outreach efforts, viewed the turnout as success, I couldn’t help but think about the 33,000 people who turned out at Fenway Park for a baseball game 82 times a year. And, unlike Major League Baseball, we didn’t charge people to attend.
Big time sports come with a spotlight and a platform for politics and protest. It’s not new, and it’s usually laden with controversy. Think about the attention one-time quarterback Colin Kaepernick got for kneeling during the national anthem at football games. The loudest fans emphatically demand that politics be purged from the spectacle of sports–although they sing the anthem and cheer for the flag.
Sometimes, athletes can do a little more, and it depends upon the nature of the issue and the moment.
The National Basketball League has been the most visible of the men’s sports leagues to engage in movement politics, on Black Lives Matter and, just now, on guns. (Big time women’s sports have long been far more active!)
The players and coaches of the Boston Celtics and the Golden State Warriors wore orange “End Gun Violence” t-shirts, before their second Finals game during warm-ups and media chats. They were trying to send a message to the massive audience on television and the Internet. (ESPN estimates that nearly 9 million people tuned into the game–and stories and photos of the warm-up shirts circulated everywhere.) I’m not sure that the players changed anyone’s mind on guns, but the t-shirts and statements encouraged people already active on the issue–and maybe helped others take those next few steps to political engagement on the issue.
Do you need the game? Gregg Popovich, long time coach of the San Antonio Spurs, who didn’t get very close to the Finals this year, went to a San Antonio rally in support of survivors of the Uvalde school shooting instead. Demanding political action and putting the blame clearly on Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Republican legislators, Popovich was characteristically clear and pointed. No stranger to politics, Popovich is a smart guy, but he commands an audience because of his success as a basketball coach (even if this year wasn’t so successful).
Do you need to be a jock?
A climate change activist bought a ticket to the French Open tennis championship, and found her way onto the court during a semifinal match. She tied herself to the net, then waited to be cut free and carried off the court. The match was paused for a little while, maybe 15 minutes, as the players went back to the locker room, and the not quite cryptic message (in English!) on the t-shirt, “WE HAVE 1028 DAYS LEFT,” was projected across the Internet.
Does any of this matter? Sure, but it’s not all the same, and effects play out over long periods of time. Although video of the French climate activist is easy to find, her name is more elusive in mainstream media. She has no special status or access to audiences, and it’s a safe bet that few came to the stadium to see her. It’s pretty easy to clear out a nonviolent protester, even if she has determination and chains. But the image–and certainly the issue–can remain.
But the NBA stars have ready access to a large audience–one that includes people who say they don’t want to hear about something other than basketball. Still, the t-shirts and the speeches can help create a sense of consensus and of urgency that could well push up voter turnouts and encourage others–even those who can’t hit a jump shot–to take actions of their own.