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Influential Athletes striking a blow

Updated: Jul 8, 2020

by Shaun Fuentes

There was a time when sports used to be simple. You play games, you have fun playing or watching the games. Be entertained! Now it’s so much more. And at every level from the grassroots and youth leagues right up to the Pros. It’s now big business that generates big money and even bigger influence. In the justice system sporting figures are maybe more than ever at the centre of criminal investigations because they once felt invincible but are no more.

And then the  good part where the world produces rising numbers of heroes and influential figures that are discussed in bars, restaurants, on airplanes and taxis, in home and  so many other parts of different countries and even by the Pope.  At the elite level, World Cups and Olympics, sports has helped give countries credibility but can also spark international conflict. Sport today is bigger and more powerful than ever with key personalities and athletes wielding more influence over culture and politics.

When top athletes talk, why does the public listen so closely? Because, in many cases, they have more power than politicians.

And this is why more than ever our athletes need to be so in tune with current affairs and with everything that technology has become there is simply no excuse for not being informed and educated. Saying you didn’t know the full story or simply erasing what you posted is inexcusable. If you don’t know then don’t say anything.  Keep your thoughts to yourself.

Times certainly have changed from decades gone by when people in general, particularly  athletes were expected to absorb every setback and insult on their own. There’s more support now. Only good things can come from athletes opening up about issues that affect us. The more athletes talk, the more fans and the general public might feel inspired to fight and speak up against social issues, racism and inequality. It all points to changing attitudes in sports – and society.

 Colin Kaepernick’s decision in 2016 to not stand for the national anthem as a protest against the oppression of people of colour lit a political fuse that continues to burn through the sports world and society.In 2017, he was honored by Sports Illustrated with the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award. In 2018, he was given the prestigious W.E.B Du Bois Medal from Harvard University for  his work combatting racial injustice and inequality.

"I feel like it's not only my responsibility, but all our responsibilities as people that are in positions of privilege, in positions of power, to continue to fight for them and uplift them, empower them," Kaepernick said in a speech at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard. "Because if we don't, we become complicit in the problem."

While his bold stand earned him widespread praise and scorn, time will tell as it is doing now whether his legacy mirrors that of Muhammad Ali who is considered the most influential social activist in the history of sport. There are men and women who are among a list of influential athletes who struck a blow for social change, equality and justice.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a US Presidential Medal of Honor recipient, was among a number

of prominent black athletes in the 1960s and '70s to embrace social activism and take a stand for civil rights. Like  Ali before him, Abdul-Jabbar made the decision to convert to Islam and changed his name from Lew Alcindor. This was a powerful statement of independence that threatened both his popularity and career.The pioneers in the area of college athlete activism were the "Syracuse Eight," a group of Syracuse University football players who walked out of a spring football practice in 1970 to protest racial discrimination on campus and within the football program.They paid a high price for their stand. They were kicked off the team and their athletic careers ended. Despite sitting out the following the season, they were allowed to keep their scholarships and graduate.

When LeBron James and his Miami Heat teammates wore black hoodies to show their support for slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, it spurred countless dinner time conversations about whether athletes should even involve themselves in serious issues. Should athletes keep their focus on the playing field, or do they have a duty to speak out on social issues because so many people look up to them? I believe the latter.

Awareness is vital here. Being aware of yourself and things around you will give you an insight into your beliefs and whether they are positive or negative and can determine how you influence others around you and by extension the wider community. This is hard work and you need to assign time to constantly look at what you do and break this down,  realising that improved awareness  has a dramatic and positive effect. It's your call. Stand up and be counted for or simply stay on the sidelines if you are unsure.

Shaun Fuentes is a former FIFA Media Officer at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa and has overseen the communications and media operations of the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association since 2000.



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