Athletes and politics

One area of interest for me is the connection among sports, politics and free expression. I have written previously (and sort-of currently) about fan expression and I hope to someday do a book examining fan and athlete expression together. The latter has received a lot of attention in the last few weeks in the run-up to the election, with stories about which candidate sports figures supported and a bit of Twitter blowback against Obama supporter LeBron James, who urged people to go out and vote for the President.

Interestingly, athlete expression played out prominently over marriage equality and ballot initiatives in Minnesota and Maryland, both of which were resolved in favor of equality (the Minnesota initiative would have defined marriage as between one man and one woman and failed the Maryland initiative would establish marriage equality and passed). As I discussed here, Brendan Ayanbadejo of the Baltimore Ravens was an outspoken supporter of the Maryland initiative–outspoken enough to draw the ire of a Maryland state representative, who wrote a letter to the team insisting that they gag him. More prominent was Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, who was uniquely outspoken in making one of the best defenses of marriage equality. Kluwe recently stopped blogging for the St. Paul Pioneer Press in protest of an op-ed that, while not endorsing either conclusion over the initiative, is far more critical of the anti-equality arguments.

A disturbing under-current to athlete expression is the repeated suggestion that the athlete ought not be doing this. Sometimes this is explicit, as with the Maryland legislator who labeled Ayanbadejo’s attempt to influence discussion on a controversial issue as “injurious behavior” or the Twitter trolls who told LeBron to “stick to basketball.” Sometimes it is implicit, as in this passive-aggressive ESPN column that, while not telling Kluwe he should stop speaking out, reminded him that he was lucky to be an NFL employee and would be wise not to do anything to undermine that position by distracting from his punting. The irony, of course, is that athletes are regularly criticized for not being politically engaged or activist enough. Of course, it always has been this way, probably worse, as the middle feature on this Slate podcast shows: The NFL no longer has activist players surveilled–as far as we know.



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3 Responses

  1. Hume says:

    Is there a political equality issue somewhere in here? Athletes, movie stars, etc., have incredible cultural influence and with social media, incredible ability to influence socio-political debate. Two important areas of political equality are the deliberative and agenda-setting stages. So, how should we approach this issue?

  2. W I generally reject the political-equality rationale where it comes to speech. The notion that speech should be rejected because it might be influential is, to my mind, inconsistent with any good understanding of free expression. And the notion that someone should have less ability or right to speak out on issues because he has achieved success or fame in life (the basic argument in the Maryland rep’s argument about Ayanbadejo) is bizarre.

  3. Hume says:

    I basically agree, although the issue is not one about stunting speech and certainly not about speech *being* influential but about one person’s capacity to reach a much wider audience simply because she is famous.