Should athletes just shut up and play?

October 15, 2019 — by Anouk Yeh and Apurva Chakravarthy

Should professional athletes keep political opinions off the court?

In July, the U.S. women’s soccer team made national headlines for taking home their fourth world cup win. On top of garnering attention for their win, the team also gained widespread media attention for their strong — and very public — distaste for the current president.

The controversy started when star forward Megan Rapinoe said in an interview that if they won, she “wasn’t going to the f—ing White House.”

President Trump responded to the comment, tweeting, “Megan should never disrespect our Country, the White House, or our Flag, especially since so much has been done for her & the team.”

The team has stood together through all of it, firmly backing Rapinoe for her decision not to go to the White House.

Rapinoe is not the only athlete who has used her platform to amplify her political views. In 2016, the San Francisco 49ers’ then quarterback, Colin Kapernick decided to kneel during the National Anthem in protest of the alarmingly high rates of police brutality in the U.S., sparking nationwide controversy.

While these two incidents aren’t the first times athletes have expressed their political views openly, they helped resurrected a nationwide conversation about whether professional athletes should just “shut up and play” — a term popularized in the February 2018, when Fox News reporter Laura Ingraham attacked LeBron James for vocalizing his dissatisfaction with the current administration by telling him to “shut up and dribble.”

Although such incidents have only recently exploded into the national spotlight, athletes have been using their platform to spread their political opinions for decades. 

One of the earliest recorded instances of athlete activism was in 1906, when Irish athlete and Olympic triple jumper Peter O’Connor was forced to compete for Britain in the Olympic Games. O’Connor protested bias in the competition when the only judge, American Matthew Halpin, gave the gold medal to the American athlete. When the British flag was erected as he was being honored for his silver medal in the long jump, O’Connor scaled the flagpole, holding up a flag that said “Erin go Bragh,” meaning “Ireland forever.”

Although there was no outspoken controversy about this action, O’Connor would go on to never compete in an Olympic game again and his actions would be regarded as one of Ireland’s most historic sporting-event protests.

Student athletes here have varied opinions on athlete advocacy, some believing that athletes should try to keep their sport and political views separate and others encouraging athletes speaking out.  

Senior Ananya Krishnan, a forward on the varsity soccer team, said that while athletes have every right to voice their political beliefs, they should mainly focus on athletics.

Krishnan’s two favorite soccer players are the national women’s soccer team players Alex Morgan and Rose Lavelle, who she greatly admires for their skill also the way they quietly handled the incident with the White House.

“They’re super big role models for me because [ever since] the U.S. women’s soccer team got a lot of attention over the summer, the two of them showed that you don’t have to talk a lot to succeed,” she explained.

She has greater respect for players like Morgan and Lavelle who focus more on the game, as opposed to players who were more vocal like Rapinoe. She believes that there is a fine line between making yourself known as an athlete and making yourself known purely for your political views. 

“Over the summer, she stepped over [that line] a couple times,” said Krishnan.   

Sophomore Kendal Jarvis, who plays water polo, said he likes athletes who avoid politics. 

“If you were going to watch a football game, it shouldn’t have anything to do with politics,” he said. He believes that sports are meant to bring people together and that adding politics, as polarizing as it is in today’s time, would inevitably do the opposite.

He added that it wasn’t an athlete’s political activeness that gained his respect but their character and personality.  

Jarvis’s all-time favorite athlete is Olympic gold medalist swimmer Michael Phelps, who he admires because of his resilient character and hard work ethic. 

As a child, Phelps had been diagnosed with ADHD and used the pool as a way to exert all of his energy and feel in control. For Phelps, the pool was a place where he truly felt at home. He hopes that many other students with ADHD and other learning issues can find solace in the water as well. The Michael Phelps Foundation has also introduced more than 15,000 children to swimming through different organizations.

Jarvis was impressed by Phelps leveraging his fame to help others and make an impact, instead of voicing his political views.

Junior Cameron King, who plays basketball, said that he wouldn’t mind his favorite athletes voicing their political opinions unless it was disruptive.

“At the end of the day, I’m impartial,” he said. “I'm respectful of them saying their beliefs, as long as it doesn’t affect the game.”

However, sophomore Kaaya Minocha, a cross country runner, said that while skill and character are important components in an athlete, how vocal an athlete is in spreading social justice ideas should be equally important.

“Athletes should be using their platforms to spread their beliefs because not that many people can do so,” Minocha said.

Minocha admires her favorite athletes, tennis player Serena Williams and gymnast and martial artist Jessie Graff, because of their vocal support for women’s rights and equality in sports. 

Sophomore Kate Dinucci, a competitor on the color guard team, also agrees that while she “admires a good player, it takes so much more for athletes to stand up for what they believe in.”

Dinucci’s all time favorite athlete is Aaron Rodgers, who she admires not only because he’s an “amazing quarterback,” but also because of his activism within the NFL.

Rodgers is the star player for the Green Bay Packers, who has been a long-time advocate for “The Enough Project,” a non-profit dedicated to “end[ing] genocide and crimes against humanity.” 

Rodgers reflected on why he decided to join the Enough Project by saying in a Politico Magazine Interview, “I remember sitting on the bus after we won [the 2011 Super Bowl] in Dallas and thinking to myself, ‘I’m on top of the world.’” However, Rodgers still felt like he wasn’t content, asking  himself, “‘Is this it? Is there more to life than this?’ And the answer was resoundingly ‘yes.’”

Dinucci said that it is athletes who not only possess good skills, but who are also politically vocal and utilize their platform to stimulate social change, who she looks up to the most.

“I think anyone who has the platform to speak out should, but for a lot of these guys it means giving up their dream job and also a lot of money,” she said. “I really admire putting your whole career on the line for speaking up in what you believe in.”

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