For decades, professional and premier collegiate athletes have used their platform to further social, political and communal change. Often overlooked, however, is the effect these boycotts, demands and protests have on amature athletes.
The NBA has been willing to conform to the players’ demands in this time of social change and civil unrest. Going into the NBA “bubble,” the players were given the option to put a social justice statement on the back of their jerseys; some of the most popular are “Black Lives Matter”, “Say His/Her Name”, and “Education Reform.”
On Aug. 26, three days after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, the sports world froze. It was an unprecedented day, and professional athletes all across the nation would take advantage of the chaos.
Immediately following the decision by the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic to boycott their playoff game, the dominoes fell one by one: tennis star Naomi Osaka refused to play in her Western & Southern Open match, multiple Major League Baseball teams postponed their games, and of course all NBA and WNBA games were boycotted for three days.
When the dust settled, the NBA Players Association was ready with a list of considerable and realistic demands. The only question remaining was whether or not to continue postseason play.
At this dilemma lies the division between premier athletes and amateurs.
In the player’s meeting between the 13 remaining NBA teams, a noteworthy discrepancy was discovered between the elite athletes and the younger, less-experienced players. The veterans were willing to sacrifice it all: playoffs, paychecks and legacy. The rookies, on the other hand, were gravitating towards resuming play with future paychecks and endorsements in mind.
The younger players’ wishes were granted, as the NBA resumed play three days later.
This gap between the biggest names in sports and less notable athletes is far wider than it was two decades ago. The maximum contract is the driving factor in this separation. Long-term, bloated contracts are becoming increasingly popular in professional sports, creating situations where individual stars take up massive chunks of a team’s payroll. This leaves the rest of the players scraping for what’s left before the team hits the salary cap. Broken down even further, this lower echelon is composed of every athlete from junior college to NBA sixth men.
Truly, there is a ‘1%’ in sports.
Only the cream of the crop has the luxury of spearheading these demands and boycotts.
Some might argue that many collegiate athletes have used their leverage on the NCAA and respective universities for COVID-19 protection and social demands, but please name one politically outspoken college athlete that competes outside the Power 5 Conferences. I’ll wait.
For example, an athlete that attends Orange Coast College has no security when it comes to voicing political opinions. Surely, they cannot boycott. They can’t afford to miss time that would otherwise be used to make it to the next level. The same can be said for a bench player in a professional league.
In an effort to accommodate college athletes, Congress has proposed an “athlete’s bill of rights” which would act as a guideline for revisions expected to be presented to universities in January of next year, the NCAA reports.
It is estimated that athletes will not receive these benefits until the 2021-2022 academic year. Even when that legislation passes, it is predicted that only a select group of Division I football and basketball players will actually benefit from the rule change. This lack of income also plays a major role in an athlete's ability to voice opinions and take significant action.
There is a major flaw in the sports system. Only when financially stable and established in their league are athletes given the leash to voice opinions. Even so, most of the weight lies on the shoulders of major figures like LeBron James, Naomi Osaka and Mookie Betts to effectively spark discussion.
Before we can make positive strides as a society, we must protect an athlete’s ability to compete, while simultaneously offering a pulpit for them to be politically active at every level.