Professional athletes are accustom to being in the spotlight and judged for every decision they make on and off the playing field/court. If you turn on the news or scroll through social media you will find something, either good or bad regarding a professional athlete. However, since the rise of the Internet, particularly social media platforms we have seen that professional athletes, as well as celebrities have been able to reach and engage a much large audience than before. Athletes are influencers on key societal and cultural issues. They provide the ‘voice’ that social media platforms promote, and also have the opportunity to impact not only a specific issue or event but also the world as a whole.
Prior to the Internet and all social media platforms, professional athletes were activists for societal issues but these platforms have provided an opportunity second to none. According to an article from Think Press, Professional athletes such as Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Annika Sorenstam all fought for a cause and used their ‘celebrity’ status to reach and engage a larger audience through various media outlets. Smith and Carlos used the 1968 Summer Olympics, which was a highly broadcasted event on media platforms of this time to fight for equality after winning Gold and Bronze medals in 200-meter sprint. Both men wore black gloves, Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on their clothing, and held their arm up in support of “Human Rights” when receiving their medals. This was a televised event that received significant attention following the games as it was featured and still is shown in newspapers, radio, TV, and magazines across the world. These men were fighting for equality in a very divided America. Since they were two African American men who were influencers at the time based on their popularity and opportunity of the Olympic games, they used this fame to send a message to a larger audience without the help from any social media platforms.
Times have definitely changed when it comes to spreading a message about a societal issue. Professional athletes have the ability to utilize the various social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to reach and engage a much larger audience who are able to support their efforts by liking, sharing, retweeting, or posting their own content surrounding a trending topic. For example, an article from Sport Techie discusses how NBA players from the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Brooklyn Nets wore “I can’t breathe” shirts during warm-ups following the tragic death of Eric Gardner, who was died in July 2014 after a confrontation with an NYPD officer. This took to social media very quickly and spread like wildfire. Social media users were tweeting, Instagramming pictures, and sharing photos and stories to Facebook about the actions of NBA players. In particular, LeBron James wore this shirt and posted openly about the issue and the reason behind him and other players doing it. They wanted to support the tragic death of Gardner and show support for his family and the ongoing issue between racism and police brutality in America. James also posted a picture to Instagram of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, two African American men who also died due to police brutality, standing arm and arm. James is a major influencer and activist for the issue of racism since he has almost 20 million followers on Instagram. He along with other professional athletes are able to send a message and expose a problem based on their social media presence and celebrity status. After NBA players wore these shirts and James posted this picture to Instagram, other media such as TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, and other social platforms exposed the story and issue even further by constantly talking, writing, and arguing about the issue. These platforms provide professional athletes an opportunity that athlete activists did not have 20 years ago. Since a majority of the world’s population are on at least one platform by pro athletes addressing these issues and being more than just professional athletes they are able to help fight for a great cause and move towards a positive result.
In my opinion, I believe that social media platforms have provided professional athletes with an opportunity like no other. These platforms allow athletes the chance to make an impact on societal and cultural issues that in a way that was very difficult before they were available. Athletes can reach and engage a must larger audience by using their fame and the spotlight they receive on a daily basis. Almost every professional game is televised now and by using these opportunities they are able to act as influencers and help solve major problems in society. Some questions come to mind after researching this topic: What happens when professional athletes decide not to speak out on these issues? Do we turn our backs on them? Do we respect their privacy or understand them not commenting because they do not have enough knowledge or information about an issue? LeBron James is facing criticism after not speaking out about Tamir Rice’s death, which James’ said he ‘did not know enough about to comment appropriately’, should he as a public figure for this issue comment anyway? Personally, I respect James’ honesty that he did not want to comment because he did not know enough about the issue. But there are some who think he should comment regardless and I think that is wrong to pressure an ‘influencer’ or ‘social media celebrity’ to comment when they are not comfortable doing so, if they want to comment or expose an issue it should be on their terms, not the publics.
Emerging Media Graduate Student
Waldron, Travis. “Where Did All The Activist Athletes Go?” ThinkProgress RSS.
Think Progress, 07 Jan. 2014. Web. 04 Apr. 2016.
Beahm, Devin. “Social Media Gives Professional Athletes Powerful
Platform.”SportTechie. Sport Techie, 21 Jan. 2015. Web. 04 Apr. 2016.