Speak, and you’re an agitator. Don’t speak, and you’re a sellout.
That’s the curious path you walk when you’re a star athlete in a world aflame with opinions. It’s been like that for decades, although social media has brought it closer to all our doorsteps.
Or haven’t you seen Tyler Reddick’s Twitter feed? In 17 words Sunday evening, the NASCAR driver offered a small gesture of solidarity in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests.
“I want to let everyone know out there," he wrote, “I hurt with you and I stand with you."
Most of the responses were positive, but it wasn’t long before resentment showed up.
“What a way to kill your racing career. I see your (sic) one of those snowflake sheep."
“Don’t get political. U just lost a fan."
“You (expletive). I hope you lose your ride now."
“Long time fan, but if u agree with this black lives matter (expletive) … (expletive) you!"
As it turns out, Reddick got off easy. Throughout the years, other athletes have faced death threats and loss of income for standing up for their beliefs.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos were evicted from the Olympic Village in 1968 after their raised-fist protest. During the Chicago Bulls’ White House visit in 1992, guard Craig Hodges delivered a letter to President George H.W. Bush that expressed his concerns about racism in America. He never played another game in the NBA. Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title and lost his boxing license on the day he refused induction to the military based on religious reasons.
For the most part, history has been more forgiving and complimentary of athletic protests. The basic social and economic rights Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Curt Flood, Billie Jean King and others risked their careers for in the 1960s and 1970s are considered praise-worthy causes today.
And yet speaking out still comes with grave risk. And for some stars, silence does, too.
Think of the biggest sports names of the past 30 years. Michael Jordan. Derek Jeter. Tiger Woods. Tom Brady. At one time or another, all have been accused of turning their backs on social justice in order to protect their reputations and endorsements. Just a few days ago, San Jose Sharks defenseman Evander Kane said it was incumbent on white athletes to lend their voices in order to spur progress.
“We’ve been outraged for hundreds of years and nothing’s changed," Kane said while talking about the George Floyd case on ESPN. “It’s time for guys like Tom Brady and Sidney Crosby and those type of figures to speak up about what is right and, clearly in this case, what is unbelievably wrong."
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Compare that to Fox News personality Laura Ingraham, who told LeBron James and Kevin Durant to “shut up and dribble" after they criticized Donald Trump on a podcast in 2018.
“Must they run their mouths like that," Ingraham asked rhetorically.
So what’s the answer? Do big-time athletes have an obligation to speak on social issues, or are they overstepping their roles by expressing their opinions?
The answer, of course, is neither.
Being outspoken is not part of an athlete’s job description. Nor should sports figures have to swallow their opinions simply because they have high-profile careers. It’s up to each athlete to decide what’s personally important, and it’s up to each fan to decide whether that’s a dealbreaker.
It’s a weird dichotomy that a lot of people don’t seem to grasp. If you feel so strongly about your own beliefs, shouldn’t you extend that same courtesy to others? The right to express an opinion shouldn’t be dependent on whether a person agrees with you, nor whether they want to speak out or remain silent.
Much of the criticism on Reddick’s Twitter feed had to do with protests turning destructive in recent days. And it’s hard to argue that looting and vandalism is either justified or productive.
But that’s not what the protests were about, and that’s not what any athlete is seeking.
You can be passionate about the need to address systemic racism and generational poverty, and still be aghast at the vandalism of property. Just as you can be passionate about the valor and integrity of cops, and still be aghast at incidents of police brutality.
If you agree Floyd’s death was tragic and unnecessary, if you are an advocate of peaceful reform, if you are in favor silent protests, you might find you have more in common with an athlete than you realize.
Someone like, say, Colin Kaepernick?