We’re talking about civil discourse in sports: events that started conversations, the circumstances around those events and the implications.
Stick to Sports?
“Stick to sports.”
You’ve heard the refrain (or, more likely, read it in a comment section on Twitter). You may have spoken or tweeted it to an athlete yourself.
“Stick to sports” is a phrase that many people invoke when an athlete speaks up about an issue of social justice or politics. “Shut up and dribble,” they say. “Stay in your lane.”
That athletes should stay out of conversations around social issues seems to be a pervasive idea in the world of sports. Years ago, there were only a handful of athletes who the world recognized also as activists for social and political causes; for them, it became endemic to their identity as celebrities.
But that was before Twitter. Now the unfiltered and instant access granted by social media allows athletes of all sports, abilities, ages and backgrounds to speak up and loudly about the issues of the day. And many of them are.
It’s often an athlete’s contribution to civil discourse that sparks the brightest and hottest firestorm of back-and-forth. What is it about the sports stars we follow that, when they decide to voice an opinion, so dramatically sends us to our battle stations?
Discourse in Action
When Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality against people of color, there was a strong reaction from both ends of the spectrum. Many people who disagreed with Kaepernick’s action told him to “stick to sports,” or to respect the American flag or to take his protest into another forum. Conversely, many people voiced support for Kaepernick, with some fellow NFL players also kneeling during the national anthem, and fans, coaches and media members expressing support for the quarterback’s statement.
Subsequent discourse was muddled, emotional, intense and, at times, vitriolic. Many who opposed Kaepernick missed the message behind his actions, believing he was protesting America itself or the country’s military. Supporters of Kaepernick co-opted his mission into larger tirades against former President Donald Trump. Sides were taken in a debate that seemed to fall along political lines, with familiar biases being exhibited and soft skills lacking.
Empathy and levelheadedness are key to balanced and productive discourse. In kneeling, Kaepernick sought empathy for the Black community, who live in daily fear of police mistreatment. Those opposed to his kneeling during the national anthem sought a sports-watching experience free of social justice statements, and many veterans of the U.S. military took issue with the time and place chosen to make the statement. These are just some of the issues at the core of this debate and hardly tell the whole story. But, fundamentally, everyone was looking for empathy and understanding of their point of view. Emotion and politics can (and did) get in the way of that understanding.
But a basic requirement of productive civil discourse is active listening and acknowledgement of everyone’s viewpoints and perspectives; telling someone to “shut up” and do their job, implying that only certain people are qualified to express their opinions about issues, doesn’t just corrode civil discourse—it moves to eliminate it.
So discourse was had in the aftermath of that comment all the same. Debates raged about the responsibility of famous athletes to stand up for social issues. Many asked: What automatically makes a famous athlete qualified to discuss these topics? Those on the other side would argue that their fame and platform means they should lend their weight to issues where there is injustice or mistreatment. Back and forth it went. Once again, empathy, understanding and other soft discourse skills were pushed aside in favor of entrenched opinions.
Conversations Around Mental Health in Sports
There are other important conversations happening in sports outside of racial discrimination and social justice.
When tennis star Naomi Osaka pulled out of the 2021 French Open due to mounting anxiety and depression, the discourse around mental health in sports grew to a fever pitch. Many empathized with her. Many others saw her pullout as an abandonment of her job’s responsibilities. Biases around race, gender, wealth and privilege all made appearances in the discourse around the issue.
Mental health has historically not been treated as seriously in professional sports as physical ailments. Athletes are often told to “tough it out” when dealing with injuries, and cases of anxiety and depression are entirely dismissed. “Be there for your team,” they’re told.
So should athletes “stick to sports”? Whether you believe they should or shouldn’t, they’re not. More athletes than ever are speaking up about issues important to them, whether it's the crossover of sports and politics, social justice issues or problems with mental health. In a world that is more connected than ever, in which people of all occupations, backgrounds, ages and belief systems can voice their opinion, athletes are joining the fray and using their platforms.
It’s important that we commit to speaking in a healthy and productive manner about the issues they raise. If we can’t engage in healthy and productive discourse around sensitive issues facing our world, as communicated by the celebrities we’ve raised to those positions of popularity, then their platforms are rendered meaningless.
Discourse in sports is here to stay. Sports are better for it. The more we understand our favorite athletes and what’s important to them, even if we disagree with it, the better.
Looking for more articles about civil discourse? Subscribe to our newsletter for more blogs like this one.