Athletes flexed their muscles off the field on a wide range of social and political issues in 2016.
Star players from the NBA, the NFL and women’s soccer showed their support for the Black Lives Matter movement and eliminating the pay gap between men and women, while the Olympics provided a stage for a marathon runner to highlight a persecuted ethnic group in Ethiopia. Other sports figures made their voices heard on issues like medical marijuana and the refugee crisis.
It’s not a new trend, of course. Athletes have used their profiles to express political viewpoints for decades, whether it was Muhammad Ali denouncing the Vietnam War or Billie Jean King advocating for women’s equality. There’s been a resurgence in recent years though, as seen by players from the Miami Heat donning hoodies to show solidarity with unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, who was killed in 2012 by George Zimmerman, or in 2014 when star University of Missouri linebacker Michael Sam revealed he was gay.
Here’s a look back at the year in athlete activism.
Black Lives Matter
This year, a black man who told a Minnesota police officer he had a concealed carry license was shot dead anyway. In South Carolina, an officer who’d been caught on video firing bullets into the back of a fleeing, unarmed black man was not convicted.
These events and others made it clear that black Americans still face an unacceptable level of violence and risk in their everyday lives. And more than a few athletes decided it was time to start talking about it.
In July, NBA stars LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade spoke at the ESPY Awards about gun violence and the use of force by police against people of color.
“The system is broken,” Anthony said then. “The problems are not new. The violence is not new. And the racial divide definitely is not new. But the urgency to create change is at an all-time high.”
The powerful remarks came after a week that saw the killings of black men Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police, as well as the deaths of five police officers in Dallas at the hands of a lone gunman.
“Let’s use this moment as a call to action for all professional athletes to educate ourselves, explore these issues, speak up, use our influence and renounce all violence,” James said. “And most importantly, go back to our communities. Invest our time, our resources, help rebuild them, help strengthen them, help change them. We all have to do better.”
Throughout this year’s football season, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem, instead choosing to kneel in protest. Kaepernick explained that he wouldn’t honor a country that doesn’t honor its own people.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL.com’s Steve Wyche in August. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Kaepernick also spoke about the need for better police training.
“You can become a cop in six months and don’t have to have the same amount of training as a cosmetologist,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s insane. Someone that’s holding a curling iron has more education and training than people that have a gun and are going out on the street to protect us.”
His statements set off a firestorm of anger ― much of it, it must be said, from hypocritical white people who seemed to think Kaepernick shouldn’t have exercised his right to protest at all.
The QB inspired others to follow his lead. In September, soccer star Megan Rapinoe took a knee during the national anthem as a member of the United States women’s national team in a show of solidarity.
Still, for all of his convictions, Kaepernick said he did not vote in this year’s presidential election, arguably one of the most important things a citizen can do to enact real change.
Sports commentator Stephen A. Smith, who had previously praised the quarterback for protesting, expressed his disgust after finding out Kaepernick hadn’t voted.
“As far as I’m concerned, Colin Kaepernick is absolutely irrelevant,” Smith said on ESPN’s “First Take.” “I don’t want to see him again, I don’t want to hear from him again, I don’t want to hear a damn word about anything that he has to say about our nation, the issues that we have, racial injustices, needing change.”
‘Equal Play Equal Pay’
American women make approximately $0.79 for every dollar men are paid for the same work, and a disparity exists in the upper echelon of the sports world too. In soccer, the U.S. women’s team is pushing to get compensated equally to the men’s national squad.
In March, five members of the U.S. women’s national team lodged a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation for alleged wage discrimination. Though the women’s team has won three World Cups, a feat never accomplished by the American men, their players were paid roughly one-quarter of what the men received, according to the complaint.
“Every single day we sacrifice just as much as the men. We work just as much,” standout forward Alex Morgan explained on NBC’s “Today.” “We endure just as much physically and emotionally. Our fans really do appreciate us every day for that. We saw that with the high of last summer. We’re really asking, and demanding now, that our federation and our employer really step up and appreciate us as well.”
With the suit ongoing, players made a fashion statement to drum up additional support. Before heading to the Rio Olympics this summer, they sported “Equal Play Equal Pay” T-shirts and temporary tattoos.
Two U.S. senators have taken up the soccer team’s cause. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) sought an explanation about the pay gap from the private company that markets and sells commercial and broadcast rights for the national soccer teams.
The Push For Pot
In the continued effort against marijuana prohibition, Derrick Morgan, linebacker for the Tennessee Titans, spent 2016 taking the legalization fight to football.
Despite marijuana being legal for medical use in more than half of U.S. states, the NFL still bans players from using it medicinally. Morgan hopes to change that.
“I’m concerned about my health,” Morgan told CNN in November. “I’m going on year seven playing in the NFL, and I think we need to know what the options are when it comes to taking care of our bodies.”
Morgan is the only active NFL player to speak out against the league’s pot policy, according to CNN. He and eight former players signed a letter with Doctors for Cannabis Regulation asking that consideration for marijuana use by football players be taken more seriously.
“Cannabis deserves the serious attention of your medical staff as a viable pain management alternative and potential neuroprotectant,” the letter said.
Several outspoken athletes hit the campaign trail this year on behalf of their favorite presidential candidates.
LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who’s spoken out increasingly on social issues, rallied with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Ohio days before the election, in what would prove to be an unsuccessful effort to win the pivotal state for the Democratic nominee. Women’s soccer star Abby Wambach likewise campaigned for Clinton in New Hampshire, a state Clinton ended up winning.
Retired NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came out strong against Trump too, criticizing the anti-Muslim rhetoric the Republican nominee spouted while running for office.
“America has changed and it’s something that we have to accept, and if he can’t accept it, it’s going to be problems,” Abdul-Jabbar told The Huffington Post in August.
Trump found famous athletes and coaches to support him as well. Former boxing champ Mike Tyson endorsed Trump in an interview with HuffPost, while ex-Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight appeared at some of the real estate mogul’s rallies.
“Let’s try something new. Let’s run America like a business, where no colors matter. Whoever can do the job, gets the job,” Tyson told HuffPost in October.
MMA fighter Ronda Rousey was perhaps the most well-known sports personality to stand in Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ corner during his bid for the Democratic nomination.
Winning Isn’t Everything
One of the most difficult humanitarian crises on the planet in the past several years has involved the flight of refugees and migrants from war-torn Syria. Soccer players on opposing teams in Greece, one of the countries flooded with asylum seekers, set aside the opening minutes of a match in January to remind viewers of the migrants’ plight.
After the opening whistle, players sat on the field in silence for the game’s first two minutes “in memory of the hundreds of children who continue to lose their lives every day in the Aegean due to the brutal indifference of the EU and Turkey,” an announcer said.
The Olympics have often been a venue for athletes to make political statements, such as in 1968 when American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave a Black Power salute on the medal podium.
In Rio this year, the silver medal winner of the men’s marathon followed in that tradition. Feyisa Lilesa of Ethiopia crossed his arms above his head after the race as a symbol of solidarity with his fellow Oromo people, an ethnic group that has been persecuted by Ethiopian authorities.
“Oromo is my tribe… Oromo people now protest what is right, for peace, for a place,” Lilesa said after the race.
Politicians in North Carolina are debating whether to repeal the state’s strict anti-LGBT law, known as HB2, months after the NBA, among other businesses and entertainers, started avoiding the state.
The NBA decided in July to relocate its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte to show its disapproval with the law, which blocks transgender people from using the public bathrooms and locker facilities that best correspond with their gender identity.
“While we recognize that the NBA cannot choose the law in every city, state, and country in which we do business, we do not believe we can successfully host our All-Star festivities in Charlotte in the climate created by HB2,” the league said in a statement at the time.
Kevin Durant, of the Oklahoma City Thunder, agreed with the league’s decision.