The Political Game: Students discuss how athletes use their platforms to enact political change


Keila McCabe

The beginning notes of the national anthem resonated through the air at the first football game of the season. But instead of standing up and placing her hand over her heart, cheerleader Sophia Nuñez ‘20 put her knee down on the track.

“I have kneeled for all ten [games,]” Nuñez said. “I do not want to be complicit in a system. If there is anything I can do to change that, I want to help. Kneeling is now a symbol of change, and I want to bring awareness to that.”

Nuñez said she was inspired to kneel during the national anthem by former NFL player Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick began kneeling to protest the systematic oppression of black Americans, he said in an interview with NFL Media in 2016. While many supported his right to peaceful protest, others claimed he was disrespecting the flag and the veterans who have fought for what it represents.

Stephen* ’19 said he believes Kaepernick should have protested in a more respectful way.

“Of course, Kaepernick has the right to protest,” Stephen said. “I only wish his protest could be more respectful to the flag. I’m happy he wanted to and has started the conversation about police violence, but the way he talks about it tells me that he just wanted to make a spectacle.”

Nuñez, however, said she supported Kaepernick’s demonstration and political activism.

“Everyone, including athletes, have important political opinions,” Nuñez said. “If you have a platform why not use it? Colin Kaepernick is not saying, ‘Agree with me because I am correct, and be completely complicit with what I am saying.’ I think it is totally fine for athletes to bring up what their political opinions are as long as they are still promoting the idea that everyone can form their own opinions.”

Following his protest, Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the 49ers. He is currently a free agent and sued the NFL for colluding to keep him out the league.

A September Nike ad campaign starring Kaepernick, which featured the tag line “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” brought him new attention. Customers threatened to boycott Nike and even started uploading videos of themselves destroying Nike products using the hashtag #BurnYourNikes. However, despite the controversy online, an analysis by Edison Trends found that overall online sales for the company increased 31% after the campaign was released.

Fedor Kirilenko ’20 said he supports Kaepernick, but sees why his actions have been so divisive.

“Although I agree with all he is doing and what he is voicing and what he stands for, he needs to realize that this is going to alienate a lot of fan base and in general a lot of people in the sport,” Kirilenko said. “It is great but he needs to consider all the consequences of his actions.”

Kaepernick is not the only athlete using his platform to discuss politics. LeBron James, widely considered the best basketball player in the world, has used his platform to vocally criticize President Donald Trump’s administration.

Sy Schoen ’20 said he admires James for using his popularity to express his political views.

“He is a leader on and off the court, and his opinions empower others to advocate for social change,” Schoen said. “His prominent position allows him to get a message out.”

After voicing his opinions about Trump during an interview, however, James was criticized by conservative radio and television host Laura Ingraham. On her Fox News show, Ingraham said that James should “shut up and dribble.”

In an interview with Sports Illustrated, James responded strongly to Ingraham’s criticism: “I will definitely not shut up and dribble. I mean too much to so many kids who feel like they don’t have a way out, and they need somebody to help lead them out of the situation they’re in.”

James also received criticism after founding I Promise School, a school in his hometown that provides free bikes, meals and college tuition at the University of Akron to students. Politicians, including Trump, insulted James’ intelligence and said that he was not qualified enough to start a school.

Kirilenko said he disagrees with Ingraham’s comments and supports what James has been trying to achieve.

“You can not tell him to shut up,” Kirilenko said. “Ultimately he has the right to say what he wants to say and what he is doing is certainly helping his community.”

MLB pitcher Jack Flaherty ‘14 also said that athletes have the right to express their own values and beliefs.

“We are not just athletes,” Flaherty said. “We are more than athletes. We are people first, that is who we are. We have the same thoughts and go through the same things the everyday person does, there are just other things we go through on top of that. Being able to use our platforms to try to make a change is important.”

Flaherty cited Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in MLB, as a historical example of athletes using their platforms to make change. Robinson played a key role in baseball and civil rights history, Flaherty said.

“He broke the color barrier and changed the game completely with allowing African Americans to play baseball,” Flaherty said. “Someone like that will never be forgotten. To go through all he went through, for everybody else that was to come and or the opportunities we have now, is something we will forever be grateful for.

Similarly, Sultan Daniels ’19 said he believes athletes have the right to express their opinions as they see fit.

“Not everyone has to agree with everything they say, but hearing different viewpoints on an issue is a step towards progress,” Daniels said. “If athletes were just athletes the public would be missing out on valuable perspectives.”

Ultimately, athletes have the right to use their platforms to advocate their political beliefs as long as they continue to fulfill their duties on the field or court, Flaherty said.

“We do have our jobs to take care of, which is to perform on the field, on the court, whatever it is,” Flaherty said. “That is where it all starts. That is how we are given our platforms – it is what we did to get there. We can use our platforms in whatever way we want, if it’s to get into politics or anything else, we can do that but it can not take away from anything that allowed us to have our platforms.”