The boycotting of games this week, playoff games no less in some cases, in the NBA, WNBA and MLB is unprecedented in modern sports history. The players who instigated the boycott were justified in expressing their outrage and frustration and were appropriately supported by leagues, networks and sponsors. Another shooting of an unarmed African American by the police in the wake of other recent, similar injustices is a national tragedy that cries out for action.
The cause of racial justice and equality is as prominent as ever in sports. Players, leagues, sponsors and networks have embraced the Black Lives Matter movement with messages in stadiums, uniforms and sponsor activations. On air promos for games on ESPN and other sports networks prominently feature racial justice themes. Teams are kneeling as a unit during the anthem. Many of the most prominent athletes in sports have used their platforms to elevate, promote and encourage action around this issue.
I applaud all these efforts. The cause is just and the lack of positive momentum makes the need for dramatic actions necessary. But expressing solidarity for the cause and using peaceful forms of protest such as these aren’t mechanisms unto themselves to deliver results. To truly “win” requires two things:
1. VOTE: The ultimate four letter word for change
Voting is a fundamental right of all Americans and the most concrete step any of us can take to express our goals and aspirations for local, state and national elected representatives. Yet voting levels among many segments of the population remain shockingly low. I’d like to see the leagues, networks, players and sponsors use every resource at their disposal to drive voting – messaging on the field, PSAs sponsored by the league in games, coordinated “get out the vote” campaigns in every city in conjunction with the local owners, sponsors and players, and perhaps even canceling all sporting events on election day so there are no distractions.
Also, voting can be more challenging for some segments of the population depending on local eligibility laws. More education and awareness is required. A number of players are encouraging people to register and vote. Sports leaders have huge influence in their local communities. Imagine the impact if the entire sports community focused on this issue alone between now and Election Day.
2. Like sports, you can’t win if you don’t show up.
Governing is time consuming, hard work. Change in a democracy in between elections happens in often mundane and boring settings: committee sessions, legislative hearings, town hall meetings. Many meetings are open to the public, but attendance is often sparse. Our elected officials need to hear from us in between elections. Posting on social media can help but in my view is no substitute to being present at these events. We must make our presence felt, even at times that are inconvenient for us.
Many important discussions about local policy happen in the evenings. What sports fan wants to attend a local legislative briefing instead of watching their favorite team? Except we have to, all of us, if we want to make sure our elected officials are held accountable.
To that end, I’d welcome seeing players, owners, league officials, networks and sponsors using their respective platforms to urge us to show up, be present and be engaged in the messy, inconvenient mechanisms of our systems of government. If they deployed some of the same tactics used successfully these past few months to elevate these issues in our culture, I believe real, sustainable change would take place.
The good news is a number of athletes and others in the sports industry are advocating for the type of ongoing citizen engagement I describe here. More voices are needed. Peaceful protests, powerful statements of solidarity and boycotts are all welcome and needed steps to change the culture. But success will only follow if many more citizens truly engage in the democratic process by voting and showing up when things are really on the line.