When Athletes Take a Stand (or knee)

Friday, May 3, 2019

by Carly Montecalvo '19

When discussing politics and issues concerning the struggles that come with being a black man in an interview, Lebron James was told to just shut up and dribble.

Currently ranked number one in the world, the U.S. Women’s National Team, led by Megan Rapinoe, sued the U.S. Soccer Federation under the Equal Pay Act for being paid half as much as their male counterparts, an action dubbed bold.

And in 2016 when 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest the oppression of black people and people of color in the United States, he became the new face of what it means to be unpatriotic.

Stephanie A. Tryce, J.D., assistant professor of sports marketing, and Brent Smith, Ph.D., professor of marketing, took notice of the many occurring examples of athlete activism, and examined their implications on national attachment in a research paper that was published in the “Journal of Sport and Social Issues.”

“Through our research we have learned that national attachments are many: national identity, symbolic patriotism, constructive patriotism, and uncritical patriotism,” says Smith. “We wanted to see which one of these is exerting the greater influence on people’s reactions, because for a long time we have been hearing the talk but no one has empirically investigated this topic.”

Sports have long been used as a form of entertainment, a tradition of escaping from the stresses of daily life for the love of a game.

Individuals such as James, Rapinoe and Kaepernick have begun to challenge the notion of what it means to be an athlete today, turning what was once a fan’s national pastime into a look at the realities faced by many in the country.

Decomposing national attachment into its respective sub-dimensions, the researchers found that fans’ disapproval of athletes' protests relates most strongly to uncritical patriotism followed by national identity, symbolic patriotism, and constructive patriotism.

“Loving your country includes critiquing it in order to insist on positive change towards its espoused values,” says Tryce, who teaches courses such as Business of Sports and Sports Law within the Sports Marketing Program situated in the Marketing Department.

What is arguably the most popular critique, the silent protests during the national anthem, have been top of mind for many viewers with today’s extensive media coverage of sports year-round.

Though, both Tryce and Smith assert that these athletes are not protesting the national anthem, but instead are performing silent protests during the national anthem.

“Protest is really saying we have not had the conversation and unless we do something that makes someone uncomfortable or unsettled the conversation is likely never to happen,” says Smith.

This idea of transparency is what many consumers are now looking for from both athletes and brands alike, an area Tryce and Smith say is next up to consider as their research progresses within the realm of athlete activism.

“I don’t believe athlete activism is going to die down,” says Tryce. “Sport is a powerful cultural institution, as important as any other institution we have, in some respects maybe more so.”

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