The Problem With the “Shut Up and Play” Mentality

Spencer Farber, Web Editor

Athletes have always used their platforms to fight for social justice. Whether it’s John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists during the national anthem at the 1968 Olympic medal ceremony to protest injustice against Black people, or 49ers Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem throughout the 2016 NFL season, sports have played an important role in the advancement of numerous social causes.

In the tumultuous year of 2020, the fight for social justice has not ceased. The tragic death of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake are two prominent examples of police violence this year. Athletes have responded by using their platforms to speak out against these issues and attempt to enact change. The Milwaukee Bucks, for example, refused to play in their playoff game the day Blake was shot in Milwaukee. The NBA also allowed players to wear approved phrases on the back of their jerseys (such as  Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name), while in their “bubble” for the end of the regular season and playoffs. It was a start for the league, a simple way for the players to promote something they believed in. However, many, mostly those of an older generation, saw the NBA’s showcase of social justice advocacy and became angry over what they perceived as the unneeded politicization of sports. President Donald Trump is among those who have expressed this sentiment; he believes that the dropping ratings are due to the social justice statements and anthem protests that have occurred.

The “shut up and play” mentality is one that has come after just about every protest throughout sports history. After Carlos and Smith’s protest, many called for them to leave the country if they didn’t respect the national anthem. Smith has said that he still receives death threats 52 years after the fact. Kaepernick was told similar things 48 years later. 

There is also a history of athletes forced out of their respective leagues due to their protesting of social justice issues. One of the first athletes to protest the anthem was Denver Nugget star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. Abdul-Rauf, whose given name was Chris Jackson, converted to Islam and strongly believed that the flag promoted “tyranny and oppression”. This led Abdul-Rauf to protest the anthem by sitting on the bench or warming up while the anthem played. Abdul-Rauf, a player who averaged nearly 20 points and seven assists, was booed mercilessly by fans throughout the rest of the season before being traded away to the Sacramento Kings. Abdul-Rauf would play just two more seasons with reduced minutes before no NBA team would offer him a contract. Kaepernick was given very few chances to continue his career after his anthem protests, despite much better stats than many backups that have proceeded to get signed over him.

The main problem with the “shut up and play” mentality is the discouragement of the principles that the United States is built on. Fans who boo athletes for kneeling or for speaking out for a cause they believe in are essentially saying that they don’t believe the players deserve to have a voice of their own. Whether one agrees with the causes being protested or not, using one’s platform to spread awareness for the issues most important to a person is a right that every human being deserves. In September, Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari was executed for having taken part in anti government protests in 2018. That is what countries with no freedom of speech look like. 

The United States has prided itself on freedom of expression throughout its history; do we really want to go back on it just because some people disagree with the causes being promoted? Many people see the athletes they watch as nothing but mindless drones; they don’t legitimately see them as a diverse group of people with a diverse group of opinions. It’s important that we see the athletes we watch everyday as people, and create an environment where they aren’t scared for their futures to fight for what they believe in. As a society, we need to learn to respect beliefs that we don’t agree on. In 2017, amidst the widespread national anthem protests, a sizable amount of veterans were polled by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association about whether they approved of the kneeling. The majority of these veterans said they did not; however, 62% agreed that athletes had the right to protest, and 98% agreed that the Constitution protected the right to peacefully protest.

 It is okay to disagree with something; however, it is not okay to deny someone a fundamental right to speak out against an issue that truly matters to them. We need to recognize that people with large platforms have the chance to make a difference for the causes they promote. Any person with such a platform should be allowed to decide how best to respectfully protest these causes. Athletes especially understand these issues. 

Systemic racism is one of the main issues that plagues our nation today. Even famous and wealthy athletes are not exempt from discrimination from law enforcement. In 2018, Milwaukee Bucks guard Sterling Brown was confronted by police after a parking violation and was violently thrown to the ground and tased by the officers. The attack on Brown shows that being rich and famous means nothing to the police if that person is Black. Athletes must be able to use their voice to protest systemic racism and violence against Black people because many of them run the risk of being attacked themselves if nothing gets done about these issues. Black athletes not only have the platform to fight these issues, they themselves can uniquely relate their past experiences with racism and violence, and we must create an environment where more athletes feel comfortable sharing their stories. We need to reach a place where fans won’t boo athletes for their personal choices and sharing their past hardships, as most fans haven’t gone through such things. 

There is a clear disconnect in society today. All one has to do is turn on the news to see the hate and hostility that divides our nation. Now is more important than ever to stand up for what one believes is right. Sports have always been a place where athletes have fought for change, with mostly negative results. It’s time we change that, and become more open to each other’s ideas. Otherwise, there can never be progress.