Social Activism’s Place in High School Sports

Marta Meinardi, Staff Writer 

A lot of controversies have surrounded athletes involving their personal opinions in their professional careers, with most critics stating that sports should not involve political stances no matter what the topic. However, this current call for social reform touches many athletes on a personal level, and their demand for change is stemmed from a profound want to see their POC* peers, family, or friends treated with the respect and credibility they do not believe exists in the current legal system. IUSD itself adopted a new resolution on July 29, 2020, which publicly supported the Black Lives Matter movement. The resolution pledged to educate.“our students and community about racism and racial injustice, assessing and implementing curriculum that supports diversity…and holding professional training for staff with an explicit focus on serving Black students and our diverse community…” It now stands to see if the district’s pledge to acknowledge and respond to racial injustice in the classroom will also translate on the fields. 

A key part of allowing high school athletes to participate in social justice activism with support from the school (and their peers) will likely depend on their choice of expression. The administration would be far more likely to support wearing social messages on sportswear or names on masks, but less likely to support a complete refusal to play a match altogether. This idea of a compromise between an athletic administration and an elite athlete’s wish to rally for social justice issues was seen at the 2020 Tennis U.S. Open. Female champion Naomi Osaka had originally refused to play the semifinal match after the shooting of Jacob Blake. She stated that “I feel there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis”. However, when the USTA** offered to postpone all matches for a day (for the same reason), Naomi agreed to play, acknowledging that their postponement would bring more awareness to the issue within the tennis community. She continued in the tournament showing up to consequent matches with a different name on her mask, each time names of POC’s* who were victims of police violence. 

A significant grey area in social justice activism is kneeling during the national anthem. A heated debate that has been going on for years — catching fire in 2016 when former pro-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee in a match — and the argument whether it is disrespectful or completely within someone’s rights has never been settled. Since 1998 the legal documents have stated that individuals.“should stand for the anthem” and the keyword“should” as well as the constitutional freedom of expression has made many people lean towards the latter interpretation. Many sports teams and administrations have punished athletes for this action, while others have supported it, so the ruling on what stance high school administrations will take is still unclear. 

Overall, many athletes as well as their peers do find a place for social activism in sports, although some oppose it. Most believe it is on an individual basis and within someone’s constitutional right to express their support for social justice movements if they wish to do so. A senior at University High School stated that “I personally firmly believe in the first amendment as long as all peace is upheld, so students should have the right to display what they believe in…Then again if some students choose to not do anything then I believe that’s their right as well…”. Whatever the verdict may be from the administration or their peers, this upcoming athletic season will likely be unlike any other in UNI’s history. 

*POC – Person of Color

**USTA – United States Tennis Association