Icons rarely behave. Legends always rewrite society's unwritten rules. Muhammad Ali is not considered the greatest just because of his boxing skills. In fact, there are boxers with better win/loss records. Ali is regarded as the greatest because, at a time when he had the greatest to lose professionally and financially, he stood up for a cause bigger than himself.
At the time of his opposition to the Vietnam War, Ali was hated and called every derogatory name Webster’s can offer. The acceptance of his greatness took time and reflection. How should this history govern athletes of today who have a multitude of social and political issues to which they can lend their voices? Should athletes just play, or should they play while participating in the political discourse?
My opinion is informed by my years as a professional NFL player. I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the downright ugly, just like anybody else sees at their place of work. When it comes to speaking out, there is one school of thought that says, “Just do your job.” Now, this may surprise you given my outspoken record on issues like abortion and racial injustice, but I don’t necessarily disagree with the sentiment of, “Just do you job.” I say this because the professional working at the post office is not expected to engage in political discussion with those in line to buy stamps. The surgeon at your local hospital is not expected to debate matters of injustice with his sick patients. In both cases, just sell the stamps, just care for the patient, respectively.
It also can’t be said that salary changes this dynamic because surgeons, who generally make more than post office workers, are expected to stay away from sensitive matters that exist outside the purview of their training. Their income does not give them the freedom to cross certain lines. But on the other hand, the professional athlete is different.
Admittedly, I may be a bit biased on this point, but no other industry in the U.S. has as much influence on its fans and its customers than professional sports. For good or bad, athletes are considered nearly superhuman. It’s not right or wrong, it just is. So to the degree this perceived power can be used to influence matters our politicians, businesspersons, and other professionals have not been able to effectively tackle, the athlete must be willing to tackle it. I do not believe athletes have an obligation to step outside their professional work and be forced to get involved in politics, but I do believe it should be welcomed if they do. The sports clubs even affirm this, regularly encouraging and creating opportunity for community involvement by its players.
Think about this. Millions of fans wear jerseys, purchase memorabilia, tickets to the games, and dedicate years of their lives in loyalty to their home teams. In athletes, they see agency. They see camaraderie. They support us because, in a roundabout way, they believe we support and represent them. With that perspective, it only makes sense, as the unofficial representatives of the common man, for us to speak up when the common man, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden or the abused is treated unfairly. This is not politics, it's simply caring about people. We all have a sphere of influence for which we are responsible. I for one will continue to lend my voice to the issues I believe in. Since God has graced me with profile, I will lift up what I believe is right, with compassion and conviction, no matter who thinks my efforts are wrong.