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Why Today’s Social Justice Activism Doesn’t Work in Sports

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

When the NBA announced they would start the playoffs again July 31st, few were sure what to expect. No one could imagine the near sweep of the Houston Rockets by the LA Lakers. More farfetched than that was the Denver Nuggets 4-3 victory over the LA Clippers. To top this off, many could not have foreseen the amount of BLM support that would be shown by the NBA and by the players of the league.

This development has, however, caused mixed feelings. It’s not hard to understand the players desire (or pressure) to become more involved with the police brutality fight. NBA players in particular have been criticized in the past for not using their platform for social issues. The social justice trend from athletes re-emerged after we saw NFL ex-QB Colin Kaepernick take a knee during the national anthem for the first time in 2016. This sparked a national conversation around policing practices, but not much has fundamentality changed besides the introduction of body cameras on police. So this year, following the death of George Floyd, the National Basketball Players Association and the NBA agreed upon a list of soical justice messages to place on the backs of jerseys and warm-ups. This list includes: Black Lives Matter, Say Their Names, I Can’t Breathe, Enough, Power to the People, Justice Now, Say Her Name, Liberation, See Us, Hear Us, Respect Us, Love Us, Listen to Us, Stand Up, Anti-Racist, I Am A Man, Speak Up and How Many More.

Sports Players Being Used as Voices for Movements

Some point out that figures like the great Muhammad Ali used their platform to fight injustices. Although this is true, the fight that gained him most of his admiration was the fight against the Vietnam War. He didn’t just speak against the war, he actually went to jail and sacrificed precious years in his prime. I doubt any of these NBA players are willing to sacrifice their check for the cause. Another important point to consider is that the Vietnam war was something a lot of Americans from a variety of different backgrounds had disdain for. It wasn’t something that was affecting a small portion of the population. Not to say size determines importance, but size does affect the amount of people who show concern for the issue. The more people affected by the issue, the more people who care about that issue.

Although I’m not opposed to people speaking out, regardless of profession, the main issue with using athletes to promote social reforms really comes down to their audience. I wouldn’t expect a NASCAR driver to talk about fufu with his fans. There’s a good chance the typical NASCAR fan is unaware of African cuisine nor would have the interest in it. It’s not their lane. According to, 46% of the NBA’s fan base are white, 27% are Black and 23% are Hispanic. Although racial groups don’t determine one’s interests, we must acknowledge that 69% of the NBA’s audience are not black. That means they are less likely to be affected by the police brutality issue (as painted). Plus, your everyday NBA fan is typically not involved in city council activities or public policy. So, shoving Black Lives Matter messaging in the face of people who are trying to escape the hardships of life by watching a game of entertainment doesn’t seem like a winning formula. The recent ratings reports seem to be supporting this theory. Washington Times writer Matthew Paras wrote, “While the NBA has struggled to rediscover its ratings mojo in a post-pandemic television landscape (down by 4% from same-time last year numbers), NHL fans seem more than happy to follow the sport into the uncharted territory of playoff hockey in August. NBC Sports touted that its hockey ratings were up 39% for the NHL’s qualification round compared to its regular-season average.” Both the NBA and the NHL are experiencing pandemic related issues, so what’s the difference here? Well for one, the NHL has not allowed BLM messaging to takeover the games or it’s sports program.