The New Golden Age of Black Athlete Activism

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY KELLY CAMINERO/THE DAILY BEAST
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY KELLY CAMINERO/THE DAILY BEAST

African-American athletes use their prominence and clout with increasing savvy and courage, borrowing what they know about branding to effect social change.

Today, there is a new brand of black athlete. They’re courageous, high profile, and smarter than you think. These men and women are undoubtedly trendsetters who know how to use the power of their bodies to sell accessories. In our sports- and celebrity-obsessed culture, when these athletes wear tattoos, over-the-ear headphones, eyeglasses, sneakers, hats, and watches, they ensure these items get more play. They recognize their ability to influence.

But we are way beyond mere endorsements here. Increasingly, these athletes are using the power of their voices for change.

It hasn’t always been this way.

The outpouring for Muhammad Ali when he died obscured the extent to which many reviled him initially and how much he suffered professionally and financially for expressing his views. Similarly, the Olympic committee suspended John Carlos and Tommie Smith for their Black Power salute during the 1968 Olympics, and their careers met similar fates. High-profile athletes who followed, like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Tiger Woods remained largely silent on political and social issues, focusing on pleasing sponsors. Times have changed.

Today’s telegenic, media-savvy athletes know how to dress for the camera, attract followings on social media, and use their platforms to express their views, defying perceptions many hold about them. It takes courage for athletes to speak up in a sports culture that values conformity. Yet they have fought for equal pay, spoken out against police abuse, mass incarceration, and other social issues that plague our nation, sometimes to the detriment of their marketability. Indeed, when it is safe to let one’s athletic feats stand as their bodies of work, it takes bravery to speak out. Social media and a 24-hour news cycle make the wrath they receive immediate, pronounced, and sustained. Yet athletes of conscience advance the dialogue and move people to action, all while looking great and in control.

Many athletes are taking public stands to highlight important issues, but below are three who deserve special commendation for their actions. They have pursued justice and withstood sometimes withering criticism for their efforts.

Venus Williams

Venus and her sister Serena have done more than any female athletes to raise tennis’s profile and the visibility of women as athletes. Venus led the push for equal pay at the grand slams (the Australian, French, and U.S. Opens and Wimbledon), even as her peers demurred. Wimbledon was the last grand slam to offer equal pay. Conversely, it is also the event where Venus has enjoyed the most success, winning the title five times and finishing as the runner up three times. How fitting it was then, that she was the first female recipient of equal prize money when she won in 2007, the same as Roger Federer for his title. She followed it up with another title 2008, looking stunning in her self-designed dress from her company, EleVen.

Andrew Hawkins

SOURCE: The Daily Beast – Craig Mills

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