The Cost of Doing Good: Athlete Activists Pay the Price

This blog was first shared for a class assignment at King’s University College for the Diversity and Social Justice course.

“Not about us without us” could be a rallying cry among athletes looking to break harmful cultural stereotypes and promote positive social change. However, demanding social justice comes at a cost to athletes’ emotional wellbeing, sometimes having to choose between towing the line or speaking truth to power.

As the sport system writ large continues to grapple with outdated policies, practices and programs, elite athletes are finding ways to challenge the status quo, by demanding a socially just environment where resources and power are justly distributed and promote a physically and psychologically safe environment (Bell, 1997, as cited in Bordere, 2017, p.9).

Power Struggle in Sport

We can’t talk about social justice in sport without acknowledging the invisible layers of power and privilege that exist and are distributed within society. Power can be defined as “the ability to have influence, control, superiority, or an advantage over others” (Brown, 1994, as cited in Harris, 2017, p. 23).  In his work, sociologist Johan Galtung (1969), describes typologies of violence which directly, indirectly, or symbolically create and perpetuate harm.  He shares that people are harmed by the social structure or institutions, making it impossible for them to meet fundamental human needs through institutionalized racism, sexism and classism, among other forms of discriminatory practice and maltreatment.

In sport, we see an imbalance and misuse of power over athletes, often not ill intended, beginning in community sport and continuously reinforced through their competitive careers. By the time an athlete has reached the pinnacle of their athletic career, many will have been socially conditioned to accept abusive, sexist and racist comments and behaviours. To speak out against these experiences means risking everything they have worked so hard to achieve (Allen & Williams, 2021).

Athletes Take a Stand

The past few years have seen a rise in the number of elite athletes worldwide who have taken a stand and used their platform as athletes to speak up and stand in allyship with the oppressed and marginalized.  “Taking a knee” became synonymous with Colin Kaepernick, then quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, who refused to stand for the national anthem protesting police brutality and racial injustice, creating a maelstrom that led to his being forced out of the game.

Closer to home we have Olympian, anti-doping advocate and Order of Canada recipient, cross-country skier Beckie Scott who advocated for fairness and justice against doping for nearly two decades. In addition, the All Players United (APU) campaigned to protest against the NCAA’s treatment of athletes in the form of economic justice, leading to systemic reformations allowing athletes to make money on their name, image and likeness (NIL). Simone Biles, Olympic Gymnast, helped to normalize mental health after she took time off from the sport, prioritizing her well-being. Biles and hundreds of survivors spoke out against USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar for the ongoing sexual abuse they suffered, while under his care.

Some athletes feel called to use their identities as athletes to right social wrongs.  For instance, in one study on social justice activism in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division 1, a football player shared that “my story is my activism. I don’t have to be an athlete to be an activist. I have to be an activist to be an athlete. Whenever I’m an athlete, the people I compete against, the people that are on my team, my coaches, my athletic admin, they all know that I’m a gay athlete. Whenever I win, I win a victory. I win for everything I’m fighting for and proving that gay and queer and trans people have a place in sport” (Klutch, 2020, p. 580).

We can also learn from 20th century high profile athletes like Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Muhammad Ali, and Billie Jean King who “used their platform to address issues of inequality and quickly emerged as icons for social change” (Klutch, 2020, p 567).

The Cost of Speaking Up

However, while some athletes naturally identify with social causes, serving as champions for change may come at a price.

While the research on the impact of social justice on athletes is minimal, we can learn from more recent stories to understand the toll it takes to perform at the highest level and why athletes only begin to realize the burden they have been bearing once they leave their sport.

Athletes often experience intersecting levels of oppression. Intersectionality is a term coined by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) to explain the many ways that systems of inequalities based on race, gender, sexual orientation, age, class, disability and other forms of discrimination intersect to create unique experiences and impacts. Moreover, because of how systems of power in sport are manifested, athletes may stay silent worried about maintaining their spot on the team, not falling out of favour with their coach, and wanting to fit in.

In the documentary The Weight of Gold, Olympians share their stories of grief, suicidal ideation, and the pressure it takes to continually perform at the highest level. Narrator, Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all times, asks “what else has to happen before we see change? How many more athletes have to die? How far down the road do we have to get before someone stands up and says we have to do something?”

It's important to note that these athletes were only able to understand and realize the unhealthy environment they were in once they left the sport. Speaking out became a way for them to regain power, ensure that wrongs are righted, and to reclaim their voice by advocating for social justice.

When athletes do push back and speak out, it often comes at a cost, especially for minoritized athletes. The term minoritized is used to acknowledge that minority is not an objective term indicating demographic quantity but rather a socially constructed category projected onto groups with limited power and representation (Stewart, 2013).

Hidden in the shadows are the capitalistic and patriarchal forces at play that commodify the athlete and dehumanize their experience through outdated language, policies and rules. Some have called sport a modern day form of slavery. Peeking behind the curtain makes it hard to disavow the truth. No wonder promoting a social cause or addressing maltreatment is not a decision that is taken lightly by athletes.

Researcher Peter Kaufman shared: “from being booed by fans to being banned from their sport, athletes who take a stand for social and political justice face intense backlash.”  He goes on to share that speaking up on societal injustices can lead to being marginalized and ostracized. The use of social media is often a tool used by athletes to connect, rally, and participate in social activism but fans expect athletes to stick to their sports rather than becoming agents of change. (Schmittel & Sanderson, 2015).

Athletes as Disenfranchised Grievers

Athletes can feel divided between their personal need for authenticity and self-expression while trying to fit in. This inner struggle can be a difficult one to continuously navigate, creating a sense of identity loss as athletes grapple with ongoing, inner turmoil. Nonfinite losses are defined as enduring in nature, normally precipitated by a negative life event that retains a physical and or psychological presence in an ongoing manner (Bruce & Schultz, 2002).

According to Harris (2017), grief, our natural, individuated, and involuntary response to loss is not well understood or tolerated in current Western society. “Social rules for grieving in most Western society are not stated explicitly, but are widely known and recognized” (Harris, 2017, p. 167).  In sport, the acceptable rules tend to reward stronger, faster, higher, with very little time or patience given to the losses that athletes accumulate over their lifespan. These disenfranchised losses include loss of friendships when they or their teammates don’t make the team or their coach gets traded, loss of identity when they leave the sport, loss of financial stability, and other living losses that are not acknowledged.

The pain can reverberate for years to come, explaining why some athletes leave their sport feeling discarded, devalued and disenfranchised. In 2021, I wrote a blog on Disenfranchised Grief, highlighting the experience of being denied the need, right, role or capacity to grieve in sport. Bereavement educator Kenneth Doka uses the term disenfranchised grief to explain the lived experience of those who don’t feel their loss is grief-worthy.

My sense is that more needs to be done to educate sport leaders so that athletes don’t feel pathologized when they experience and express their grief.

Sport Culture is Shifting

Progress is being made.

In Canada, growing attention has been placed on the wellness of athletes with programs like Game Plan by the Canadian Olympic Committee helping athletes transition out of sport and the Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport providing psychological aid to national level athletes.

AthletesCAN, Canada’s athlete-led advocacy group, honors a current or retired national team athlete each year who used their platform to make a positive impact in their sport or community at the local, national or international level. The Social Responsibility Award is one way to encourage athletes to stand up for causes that include diversity, equity, inclusion, community, volunteer or other social change initiatives.

Yet, there is still so far to go to ensure that athletes feel safe and empowered to speak out against social injustices.

The Future of Sport in Canada Commission that was recently launched by the Minister of Sport to improve safety in sport offers a hopeful way to engage athletes and leaders in a deliberate and values-based conversation on shifting the culture of sport.

As we map out the way ahead, here’s what’s on my wish list:

  • Create a National Players’ Association for Amateur Athletes: Much like professional athletes have a Players’ Association to protect their interest, national team athletes could benefit from a coordinated approach to ensure collective wellness, proactively address concerns, and contribute to restored faith in the Canadian sport system.
  • Explore different forms of compensation for athletes: While this may seem a radical idea, how might treating national team athletes as ‘employees’ granting them the same access to medical benefits, employment security, pensions and economic compensation for their labour, restore trust in a broken system? For more inspiration, read Ruffin, 2014.
  • Provide Grief and Loss Support: Ensure that coaches, mental health providers in sport, athletes and parents are aware of fundamental thanatological principles so they can normalize, not pathologize, the intersecting losses experienced by athletes as they move through the system. This would also be true for the people who are in service of the athlete.
  • Address direct, structural and symbolic violence: Examine the sport system through an intersectional lens and consider the typologies of violence that contribute to maltreatment. This would include overhauling the current governance system towards a modern, accountable, values-based and sustainable model.
  • Universal adherence to the True Sport Principles: A commitment to manage, lead, compete and coach in alignment with the True Sport Principles to proactively reduce maltreatment and increase wellness in sport.

Sport, when designed intentionally, and based on the seven Principles of True Sport, can serve as a healthy playground to develop the physical, social, and emotional health of children, youth and adults. We have the evidence we need to understand the benefit of values-driven sport through the True Sport Report. The question is whether we have the will to make it happen.

When the environment is healthy, athletes can thrive. When athletes thrive, they can become ambassadors of hope, including drawing much needed attention to social injustice. Athletes deserve a system that supports their right to healthy, human sport. We will all benefit when this is realized.

References

Allen, T. & Williams, S. (2021) The Colin Kaepernick Effect on Contemporary Social Activism in Sports. Black History Bulletin, 84(1), pp. 15-18. https://doi.org/10.1353/bhb.2021.0006

Crenshaw, K. Demarginalizing the intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Policies. University of Chicago Legal Forum. 1, pp. 139-167.

Bordere, T. (2017). Social Justice Conceptualizations in Grief and Loss. In D. Harris and T. Bordere (Eds.), Handbook of Social Justice in Loss and Grief: Exploring Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. (pp. 9-20). Taylor & Francis Group.

Doka, K. J. (2008). Disenfranchised grief in historical and cultural perspective. In M. S. Stroebe, R. O. Hansson, H. Schut, & W. Stroebe (Eds.), Handbook of bereavement research and practice: Advances in theory and intervention (pp. 223–240). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/14498-011

Galtung, Y. (1969). Violence, Peace, and Peace Research. Journal of Peace Research, 6(3), 167-191.

Harris, D. (2017). Social Expectations of the Bereaved. In D. Harris and T. Bordere (Eds.), Handbook of Social Justice in Loss and Grief: Exploring Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. (pp. 165-175). Taylor & Francis Group.

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