Sports as a Catalyst for Social Justice and DEI

NSM discusses the significant and fascinating intersection between athletic achievement and social change — examined via the remarkable outpouring of activism among pro athletes that has taken hold of our national consciousness. 

by Adam Slocum, Kristin Latimer, Eli Goldstein

January 31st, 2023


Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

When I experienced the Smithsonian’s powerful “Muhammad Ali: A Force for Change” exhibit, I was struck by the need and purpose for a comprehensive, multi-sport venue where everyone can explore the significant and fascinating intersection between athletic achievement and social change. Since that exhibit, the heightened focus on social justice issues, particularly due to the remarkable outpouring of activism among pro athletes, has taken hold of our national consciousness. 

On August 26th, 2016, just a month prior to the opening of “A Force for Change”, Colin Kaepernick made a simple gesture that sparked a national discussion about race in America and the role of an athlete in helping shape that dialogue. The 49ers quarterback sat on the bench during the national anthem of a preseason game. He had sat two previous times, but was not noticed since he was wearing street clothes. It was not until the third game of his protest that anyone became aware of his actions, or non-action. Only one reporter asked him about the gesture after the game. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

“To me, this is bigger than football.” 

Colin Kaepernick

Kaepernick was referring to numerous incidents of police officers disproportionately persecuting, and occasionally killing, African Americans and people of color. The fight for social justice came at great personal risk, but he did not care. “I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right,” said Kaepernick. Naturally, he received a large amount of criticism for his actions, which were described by some as anti-military, a sign of disrespect to the servicemen who fought and died for America. Others thought it was disingenuous for an affluent person raised by white parents to take a stand against Black oppression. Some football fans saw Kaepernick as a struggling second-string quarterback looking for attention.

Those who opposed Kaepernick’s actions did not truly understand the goal of his protest. Former player and Black activist Wade Davis remarked, “The larger conversation is what he is protesting about. The fact that so many don’t want to have that specific conversation speaks to the fact that they know what is happening in America is beyond tragic.”

Mike McCarn / AP file

The next game, Kaepernick and some fellow teammates decided to take a knee during the anthem. It is not an exaggeration to say that Colin Kaepernick started a movement within professional sports. Countless athletes decided to protest the anthem as an act of solidarity against Black oppression and in support of Kaepernick’s message, which he fervently believed would shine a light on those things that needed to be addressed in this country so that everyone feels valued and included. Kaepernick’s protest marked a turning point in the activism of athletes and continues to be a symbol of change regarding athletes’ increased willingness to leverage their platforms to advocate for social justice.

It's not an exaggeration to say that Colin Kaepernick started a movement in pro sports, inspiring many other athletes to leverage their platforms to advocate for social justice.

However, it is important to note that the genesis of WNBA players becoming leaders in social justice movements—particularly against police brutality—can be pinpointed to July 9, 2016, a month prior to Kaepernick’s protest. Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Rebecca Brunson, and Seimone Augustus appeared at a press conference in T-shirts saying “Change Starts With Us: Justice and Accountability” after the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling at the hands of police officers. The WNBA fined the players for violating the league’s apparel guidelines, signaling its reluctance to embrace a platform of explicit activism. After players called out the league for trying to silence their voices, the WNBA rescinded the fines, beginning an era of increasing support for player activism.

Four years later, during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the same issues came to the forefront, most notably the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. WNBA star Angel McCoughtry came up with the idea to put “Breonna Taylor” on the backs of jerseys to keep bringing attention to the EMT’s case. After obtaining approval for the proposal from the WNBA and WNBPA, McCoughtry posted a mock-up on social media and encouraged other players to use their uniforms as platforms. The day after her viral post, the NBA announced a similar program to utilize players’ jerseys to highlight issues of justice and equality. Similarly, the NFL would go on to use the back of players’ helmets to send positive messages of love and unity, such as “Inspire Change”, “It Takes All of Us”, “End Racism”, “Stop Hate” and Be Love”. 

The following week, the league and players’ union formally approved the display of names of women who had been victims of police violence and formed a player-led Social Justice Council. The first game, between the Seattle Storm and New York Liberty, set the tone for the season when Breanna Stewart and Layshia Clarendon read a pre-game statement from the Council. Their declaration dedicated the whole WNBA season to Breonna Taylor and the “Say Her Name” campaign to advocate for the Black women lost to police brutality. Videoconference meetings with Taylor’s mother and other bereaved families of victims made every act of remembrance even more profound and genuine.


“Change Starts With Us: Justice and Accountability.” 



Just a few months later, the players faced yet another difficult decision when, in August, Jacob Blake was shot 7 times in the back in another act of police violence. All teams sat out two days of games, not specifically as an act of protest but to engage in reflection to make some important decisions. All 144 players met for a candlelight vigil, and later discussed whether they should even play out the rest of the season. An ESPN documentary chronicled the emotions and heartache that the athletes experienced while ultimately reaching the decision to keep playing. Angel summed up the sentiment that the players could keep doing their job on the court while still having a say and making a difference in the arena of human rights and social justice. She said people who were skeptical of athlete activism would ask, “Well, what is a name on a jersey going to do?” Her response: “We’re planting the seed...We’re keeping their legacy alive.” By the time the season ended in September and the Seattle Storm were crowned WNBA champions, the players had endured a psychologically challenging 3 months. Through the intentionality they brought to nearly every aspect of the season, down to their jerseys, the players of the WNBA did much more than just “say their names” by thoughtfully honoring each of these women and their families.

AP Photo / Phelan M. Ebenhack

On May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, an African American man named George Floyd was killed by a white police officer, who kneeled on Floyd’s neck until he died. Following Floyd’s death, the entire country erupted into chaos with protests breaking out in most cities across the United States. Protestors were calling for justice and the defunding of police departments.

Several attendees at the protests were professional athletes with a strong social media presence. Many NBA and WNBA players came out in force and shared their activism on social media where they encouraged others to protest. Celtics star Jaylen Brown (who was only 23 at the time) drove 15 hours from Boston to his hometown of Atlanta to join in the protests. “Atlanta, don’t meet me there, beat me there, come walk with me, bring your own signs,” Brown said in a tweet. Many other players, including Malcolm Brogdon and Enes Kanter, were seen marching and demonstrating in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Additionally, teams released statements from their players, like this one from the Washington Wizards, whose efforts were led by Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook:


There were more extreme forms of protest as well, including players refusing to compete in the NBA and WNBA bubbles, because they felt it would detract from the significance of their civil rights’ message. Natasha Cloud from the WNBA’s Washington Mystics decided to forego the WNBA season to focus on social justice. “Don't back down. Keep raising your voice. Tell Congress we need better accountability policies to meaningfully address rampant systemic racism and policing,” she said. Players who did compete, such as Jamal Murray, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and others, were able to communicate their messages of social justice on their warmup shirts, the backs of their jerseys, their shoes, etc.

Both baseball fields and basketball courts had “Black Lives Matter'' or “BLM” visible on the field of play for the TV cameras to see. Even athletes outside of the United States, such as Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton, were vocal about social justice, posting a moving tribute to Floyd on the one-year anniversary of his death. “What does justice mean when a man's life is stolen, because of nothing more than the colour of his skin?” he wrote. “We work to build an equal world for George, for his children, and for all the other victims of racism.”

White athletes, such as Joe Burrow, also had a role in speaking out about social rights and racial injustice. “The Black community needs our help. They have been unheard for far too long. Open your ears, listen, and speak. This isn't politics. This is human rights,” he said on Twitter. Both Tom Brady and J.J. Watt, two players who usually don’t speak out on controversial issues, made comments on the situation with Watt calling the Floyd video “disgusting” and Brady signing a letter to the Department of Justice requesting an investigation into the death of another African American, Ahmaud Arbery.

The willingness of White athletes to speak up shows how widespread the issue of racial and social justice has become in the hearts and minds of countless Americans. All these athletes and the professional leagues who supported them received criticism for using their platform to support a cause that many find political. Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers said it best: “It’s not an athlete’s job to speak out,” he said. “It’s no one’s job to speak out. It’s our responsibility if we want to make it that. You should speak out. Everyone, if you feel it. We all are part of one country, and we all have to play our part. I think the one reason athletes and entertainers and politicians speak out is because they have the mic in front of them. That’s the real reason…we have an ability to be heard.”

On August 23, 2020: Jacob Blake, a Black man living in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was shot in the back seven times, another incident of excessive police force against an unarmed Black citizen. The nation had been thrown upside down after the death of George Floyd, and countless NBA players partook in protests. Indiana Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon explained his perspective on the situation: “There were a lot of guys that decided not to come (play in the Bubble) due to what’s going on with the Black community, the oppression,” he said. “But for me, I thought I could make more of an impact making this money and then helping the Black community with it, and also continuing to shed light on those that don’t have a voice.” Many others felt that if they kept playing then their platform as players would be more influential.

Social media helped the players communicate to the world exactly how they were feeling, and it made waves across the sports world. In such a unique environment where every player was in the same place, many conversations began to emerge among the most influential players, including NBPA president Chris Paul and LeBron James. James and Paul even reached out to former President Barack Obama to get his advice on what the best course of action should be. The league and the players’ association made a collective decision to postpone the three games scheduled for August 26th. With much more progressive leadership league-wide, the NBA was able to make a strong decision that supported the will of the players to honor social justice and vehemently oppose police brutality and systemic racism.

It's important to note that Jacob Blake is a civilian who was paralyzed, not killed. He was not a revered civil rights leader like Martin Luther King, Jr., whose assassination back in 1968 did not end up leading to the cancellation of a game (though the NBA’s African American leaders, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, contemplated it). Clearly, over the past 50+ years, players and league officials have come a long way in their awareness and willingness to leverage their platform in response to societal transgressions. For that, we should be grateful as we continue to put sports in perspective, recognizing their formidable capacity to effect positive social change.

January 2, 2023: Fast forward to the beginning of this year. Damar Hamlin, a talented young Black man, sustained a life-threatening injury on an NFL playing field during Monday Night Football. The people who heroically saved his life were people of multiple races. They all knew and fully embodied the sentiment that Black lives matter. The players and coaches praying on the field for his safe recovery were of all races and religions. They were praying for a beloved teammate and opponent, not a person of a particular color. The courage and faith Damar Hamlin and his family have exemplified, coupled with the heartfelt support they are receiving from people all over the country and around the world, speak eloquently of sports’ unique power to bring us together with humanity, compassion, and love.

“Did We Win?” 

Damar Hamlin

Damar’s first words after being resuscitated in the hospital were, “Did we win?” To an extent, I would say that as a nation over the past 7 years, we have won. Much like Damar Hamlin’s recovery, there is still a long way to go, but America’s evolution mirrors the values and direction of Damar’s indomitable spirit and his foreseeable path to full convalescence. The sports world, consisting of athletes, teams, leagues, and fans, has played a critical role throughout the resuscitation process. Let us carry that spirit throughout Damar’s full recovery and beyond.

That sense of dignity and unity, particularly as facilitated through sports, is what the National Sports Museum will celebrate and hopefully inspire throughout all aspects of our lives. As such, the concept of a National Sports Museum has been growing in meaning and momentum, ever since the time of Robinson and Ali, to Kaepernick, McCoughtry, and the legion of modern-day players with their powerful platform to effect meaningful social change.


Sports provide an unrivaled opportunity to foster social justice and diversity, equity, and inclusion by bringing people together in a way that facilitates bridging divides, building lasting relationships, and creating a powerful sense of camaraderie and community.  NSM is collaborating with leading social justice charitable organizations, such as the Institute for Sport and Social Justice (ISSJ), Athletes for Hope (AFH), and RISE, which are all extremely active in promoting DEI initiatives through sports. ISSJ is led by Richard Lapchick, who grew up playing basketball in New York City with Kareem Abul-Jabbar and has dedicated his life to utilizing sports to champion the cause of social justice. One of AFH’s members is Etan Thomas, a former NBA power forward and author of the book, We Matter: Athletes and Activism. RISE, whose work spans across the sports industry, takes a hands-on approach to equip the sports community with the knowledge and tools to address matters of racism, prejudice, diversity and inclusion. 

With a total of nine leading non-profit co-founders, NSM will be a central gathering place and welcoming environment for the American and global sports community to come together to address a multitude of social and cultural issues, all centered around sports as a unifying force.

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