This chapter is dedicated to my uncle, Richard Phillips, who showed me that a passion for sports is much deeper than what is seen on the surface. Rest in peace uncle Richard.
Keywords: Social Justice, Social Media, Persuasion, Professional Sports, Race
For decades, American athletes have been given a platform largely powered by digital networks to interact with fans, spectators, and media outlets to proliferate their careers. However, the accepting nature we have towards sports has paved a need for rapid media consumption, often at the expense of professional athletes and their content. The convenience of technology intertwines with the entertaining nature of sports, creating a social construct that comes with attached risks and dangers, especially for minorities advocating for social justice. Today, a digital platform ridden with public perception and malicious opinions from anonymous users only accumulates for athletes and is largely controlled by social media networks such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Players are now able to rapidly communicate with thousands, even millions, of fans around the world in a matter of seconds. This topic is near to my heart because I have been a sports fan and athlete for as long as I can remember. An athlete’s sport is not their sole societal contribution or impact. Professional athletes deserve the same right to free speech that we all share. As an audience of sports fans, it is our obligation to show respect to the players we love rather than throw hatred because they are more than their sport.
With a new ability and access to a digital age, sports institutions that hold athletes under contractual obligations such as the NBA, NFL, and various other brands, have placed fear into athletes with restrictions on their free speech. In this paper, I argue that professional athletes and especially minorities are often persuaded by their contractual obligations to brands and sports institutions to moderate their activism and social justice efforts on social media and various platforms. In this case, minorities are defined as a demographic whose ethnicity is fewer in number than the main, dominant group in society. I will be measuring persuasion by the monetary consequences many athletes face after demonstrating activism. I intend to capture the role of institutional rhetoric and the rhetoric of fear in the media to uncover how they apply to present-day athletes just as athletes in history. The rhetoric of fear is essentially when one tries to gather support for a particular idea by attempting to increase fear towards an alternative party. Institutional rhetoric allows organizations and institutions to speak with one cohesive voice. With constrictive parameters around discourse, athletes are not always able to use their voice effectively without risk of penalty or removal from an organization, and when they do, they are seemingly left on their own.
In order to deconstruct the layers of institutional rhetoric and the rhetoric of fear within professional athletes advocating for social justice and racial solidarity on digital platforms and the backlash they receive, it is imperative to first define the role institutions play in the decision-making process. Generally speaking, the United States government is unable to repress citizens of free speech, according to the First Amendment. However, private sports organizations control their brand under any circumstances, often overlapping their policies with the morality of athletes under a particular contract. Here, institutions make a choice to support their athletes, penalize them, or to stay silent.
Time and time again, history shows that professional sports leagues often urge their athletes to abide by a set of standards. Just over 50 years ago, John Carlos and Tommie Smith demonstrated the Black Power salute as they raised a fisted black glove in support of human rights on the podium of the 1968 Olympics (Ruffin). Lingering impacts of the gesture included The International Olympic Committee banning Carlos and Smith from the U.S. team, hateful public and media outrage, and various death threats. Although change has occurred since then, sports organizations similarly strike fear into their athletes by discouraging acts of protest against racial inequities and police brutality because it may interfere with public brand perception. Colin Kaepernick is a former NFL quarterback who kneeled during the national anthem of a game on August 26th, 2016, to protest the oppression of Black Americans. Five years later, no NFL team has signed Kaepernick, even though he remains one of the most capable unsigned quarterbacks.
The NFL has predominantly chosen to protect their brand and refrain from any efforts at activism, which reiterates my claim that athletes are often halted in their effort to support racial protest by the rhetoric of fear that sports institutions instill within their contractual obligations. Several deaths from police brutality in the United States have occurred in the most recent decade alone, such as Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown Jr, and many more lives lost tragically. These clear issues of subjugation within our current government sparked a vast contrast in sports institutions maintaining a particular brand image, and athletes demonstrating a race-related agenda. In When Athlete Activism Clashes With Group Values: Social Identity Threat Management via Social Media, scholar Jimmy Sanderson begins his study with an NFL anecdote from the St. Louis Rams. In 2014, five African American Rams players joined hands in the game introductions after an instance of police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri. This seemingly harmless gesture would give these men an unexpected next few weeks. Following the game, the St. Louis Police Officers Association called for the NFL to take measures of discipline on the players involved (Sanderson et. al 302). Outraged fans engaged on Facebook and Twitter to form a hate group with the hashtag #BoycottRams. The Rams and NFL did not enact the penalties requested on the players, however their silence was imminent, leaving the players to deal with the ramifications of social media hate speech and death threats themselves. Sanderson states, “Not only do social media platforms serve as venues where group members address social identity threats, but as the process for managing those threats unfolds, consequences of advocacy and activism may emerge” (Sanderson et. al 319). These players demonstrated a peaceful protest yet were attacked viciously on Facebook by supposed fans of the Rams with no help from their obligatory institutions and brand deals, including the NFL as a whole.
Responsible athletes merely asking for a change in systemic discrepancies for minorities in America still face severe backlash from a plethora of areas. NBA star Kyrie Irving can serve as an example for this model. Throughout his career, he has been rather vocal on racial issues in America on social media and press game conferences. Irving has been accused of dominating press conferences with racial material and has faced backlash on many levels. The first area of backlash is the continual discrepancy between athletes and their organizational obligations, where athletes are persuaded to refrain from sharing their personal beliefs on race through the fear of being fired or suspended. Another example is the extensive media backlash that forces an athlete to respond to pressure, while institutions often go silent and let them handle the hate themselves. For instance, media outlets will analyze the political/racial beliefs of athletes and rip them apart for the purpose of entertainment, often on television or online articles.
LeBron James is one of the most accomplished players in NBA history. He was given little to no help in responding from an institutional standpoint after being verbally attacked by a news host and a plethora of social media accounts. Scholar Yair Galily gives some anecdotal evidence to this claim in his study “Shut up and dribble!”? Athletes’ activism in the age of twittersphere: The case of LeBron James.” Laura Ingraham is a host for Fox News, where she regularly spews hatred and displeasure for those taking political stances in opposition to her beliefs. In February 2018, Ingraham targeted LeBron James for supporting the Black Lives Matter movement on his social media. James also made comments on the leadership of Donald Trump for neglecting the BLM movement. Ingraham asserted that James was “ignorant” and “barely intelligible.” She then requested for James to “shut up and dribble” because he is a “dumb jock” who does not have the right to speak on political affairs (Galily 2). The NBA gave no response to the situation, and the many brands James is signed to did not take a stand in support either. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver essentially hid from the public view to separate his brand from the incident, even though one of his most profitable players was being heckled on live television. As Galily points out, sport does not operate in another, outside society. He states, “Sport serves as a site where societal inequalities such as racism, sexism, economic stratification, and other forms of oppression are reproduced, exacerbated, and/or ignored” (2). The fear instilled in athletes is fueled from backlash that can take place in the form of media or institutional silence. This institutional silence from my past examples directly extracts fear in athletes, as a feeling of isolation occurs for the athlete when handling a situation alone.
To maintain a clean brand image, institutions will take any measure necessary to discourage their athletes from stepping outside the functional norm. With such a repetitive and grueling history in athletic social justice efforts, why is social media such a prevalent catalyst for professional athletes? In “Choosing Between the One-Way or Two-Way Street: An Exploration of Relationship Promotion by Professional Athletes on Twitter,” scholar Evan Frederick emphasizes the “profound effect on sport” that social media outlets possess, where thousands of athletes have developed a “presence” from their personalities over time (Frederick et. al 81). Frederick references a quote by Galen Clavio and E.M. Klan that they developed in their study “Uses and gratifications of a retired female athlete’s Twitter followers.” They state that social networks are “a broad spectrum of information sharing and interactivity that may be decided by the content generator (i.e., the athlete, coach, or organization)” (81). The content generators in this case have a broad history of controlling and moderating posts from athletes, especially within the NBA and NFL.
Considering the past examples of media outlets attempting to silence the voice of athletes on political and racial matters, it is fair to assume that many spectators of sports would rather the athletes simply play the game they are designated to, and to keep their comments to themselves, especially those proposing for a reformed and racially inclusive government. However, I argue that it is imperative for not only athletes, but all people to share their voice on matters as sensitive and urgent as racial equality in America. Proposing athletes to “shut up and dribble” is damaging to societal progression. As I mentioned in the introduction, just because one has a designated occupation with contractual obligations, Americans should all maintain the right to free speech and face support rather than backlash for taking a stand for racial solidarity.
This paper attempted to analyze the fear of rhetoric and institutional rhetoric and how they pertain to the professional sports world. I chose this topic to demonstrate that in the present, minority athletes are still subject to different rules of free speech under contractual obligations. This process may be a part of the job, however when simply advocating for a better, more inclusive tomorrow, athletes should not be penalized or discouraged from sharing their testaments, especially considering the massive digital and public platform some athletes possess. I hoped to emphasize the importance of social media and the several historical instances of players being silenced and compare it with our current sports climate. Ultimately, societal issues must not be ignored by professional sports organizations, yet they continue to heavily moderate the speech of professional athletes in America and instill fear within them.
Clavio, Galen and Edward M. Kian. “Uses and gratifications of a retired female athlete’s twitter followers.” International Journal of Sport Communication 3 (2010): 485-500.
Frederick, Evan, et al. “Choosing Between the One-Way or Two-Way Street: An Exploration of Relationship Promotion by Professional Athletes on Twitter.” Communication and Sport, vol. 2, no. 1, SAGE Publications, 2014, pp. 80–99.
Galily, Yair. “Shut up and Dribble!’? Athletes Activism in the Age of Twittersphere: The Case of LeBron James.” Technology in Society, vol. 58, 2019, p. 101109.
Jimmy Sanderson, Evan Frederick & Mike Stocz (2016) When Athlete Activism Clashes With
Group Values: Social Identity Threat Management via Social Media, Mass Communication and Society, 19:3, 301-322.
Ruffin, Herbert G. “‘Doing the Right Thing for the Sake of Doing the Right Thing’: The Revolt of the Black Athlete and the Modern Student-Athletic Movement, 1956-2014.” The Western Journal of Black Studies, vol. 38, no. 4, Washington State University Press, 2014, pp. 260–78.