Jun 10, 2020 - Sports

The rise of student-athlete activism

Illustration of a foam finger in the shape of a fist
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Empowered by social media, college athletes are speaking out on social issues and driving the national conversation in ways their predecessors could only dream about.

Driving the news: It's not only superstars whose messages have been amplified. Just last week, a little-known Georgia Tech basketball player started a movement to make Election Day a universal off day for all 460,000 NCAA student athletes, and it's gaining momentum.

  • Auburn: The football team staged a peaceful, three-hour protest at the famed Toomer's Corner.
  • Oklahoma: In a tweet that has since gone viral, two-sport athlete Ashlynn Dunbar called stick to sports culture "dehumanizing" and encouraged fans who don't support her voice on social issues to not support her on the court.
  • Missouri: Over 60 football players knelt together in silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds to honor George Floyd before registering to vote.
  • Iowa: Former and current football players exposed the program's racist culture on social media, with most of the ire directed towards longtime strength coach, Chris Doyle, who has been placed under administrative review amid the allegations.

The backdrop: Colleges have long been a hub for social change, thanks to the thousands of young men and women experiencing independence for the first time and seeing the world through a new lens.

  • In the 1960s, some of the world's biggest athletes, from Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell, to John Carlos and Tommie Smith, led by example as they spoke out against the issues of the day.
  • Students took note, and whether it was Oregon State football player Fred Milton and his peers in 1969, or 300 students at Kent State in the spring of 1970, they learned their voices and actions mattered, too.

The big picture: Fast forward 50 years, and though the landscape appears painfully similar, the role of the college athlete has drastically changed.

  • 50 years ago: Against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, athlete activism wasn't unheard of, but with limited media exposure, it was tough to break through the noise, especially for non-stars.
  • Today: Against the backdrop of a global pandemic and worldwide protests over systemic racism, star athletes who were once merely celebrities on campus are now viewed as leaders in the community and almost expected to speak out, while even non-stars can make national news with a single tweet.

The last word:

"The power dynamics have shifted, the status quo has been unbalanced, and it's been tipped into the favor of student-athletes. ... If you have the ability to do what's right, you have the responsibility to do what's right. I just can't be silent anymore."
ā€” UNC linebacker Jake Lawler, who also wrote a powerful essay
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