Is Athlete activism actually making a social impact?*background image was created by the Dallas Examiner*

A new topic has become more common in sports news over the last couple years: athlete activism. Whether it’s kneeling during the national anthem, taking on issues and meeting with government officials or lending their brand to causes, athletes are taking a stand and using their voices. But we wanted to know- is it moving the needle?

NFL Players and the National Anthem Protest

Probably the most viral issue in the world of athlete activism today is the kneeling movement in the NFL. Started by San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016, kneeling spread through the NFL sidelines. Kaepernick kneeled to protest the unequal treatment of black Americans by police and in society. The debate has spiraled as many conservatives have transformed the protest to be anti-military.  

This past week, we’ve seen two NFL teams publicly announce donations to social justice causes.

The Chicago Bears announced that their players were raising $250,000 within the locker room that would then be matched by ownership for a $500,000 total donation. Bears Chairman George McCaskey sat down with Bears players Sam Acho, Mitchell Trubisky, Chase Daniel, Trey Burton, and Akiem Hicks for an interview about how the team reached the decision to make this happen and their goals with the campaign. (Watch it here.)

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers also announced their Tampa Bay Buccaneers Social Justice Initiative that has been funded through a $1 million donation from the Glazer-Kassewitz family (team owners). The initiative will partner with the City of Tampa to implement a year-round, player-led operation to make an impact in the Tampa community. According to Sports Illustrated, Offensive linemen Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet, wide receiver DeSean Jackson, and defensive lineman Gerald McCoy will serve as leaders for the team’s 100% player-run social justice board.

Both teams were clear that this was not something that sprang up overnight- discussions have been going since Kaepernick first started kneeling. And both teams have been clear that they are committed to letting the players take the lead here- another good sign that both teams are letting authentic partnerships and projects be the focus.

In addition to these recent announcements, a group of 12 former and current NFL players (listed below) created the Players’ Coalition, an independent 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization.  

Doug Baldwin, Seattle Seahawks

Kelvin Beachum, New York Jets

Anquan Boldin, Former NFL player

Demario Davis, New Orleans Saints

Malcolm Jenkins, Philadelphia Eagles

Chris Long, Philadelphia Eagles

Devin McCourty, New England Patriots

Josh McCown, New York Jets

Josh Norman, Washington Redskins

Rodney McLeod, Philadelphia Eagles

Torrey Smith, Carolina Panthers

Benjamin Watson, New Orleans Saints

The Players’ Coalition mission is to focus on key areas of criminal justice reform, social and racial equality where their support can make a meaningful difference. Each month on social media, they highlight an aspect of the criminal justice system that needs reforming. September is the concept of cash bail. All of these athletes are significantly involved in their communities with criminal justice reform among other causes.

MLB Puerto Rico Campaign

Let’s switch it up from the NFL and move from the gridiron to the baseball diamond. Last fall, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. The death toll is now estimated to be nearly 3,000 people, and many parts of the island were without electricity for months. While MLB players are regularly making an impact in their communities (check out the great work being done by both this year’s American League and National League All-Stars), the work they did to help those suffering from Hurricane Maria made a difference.

Dozens of players including Carlos Beltran, Alex Cora, Rene Rivera, Francisco Lindor, Jose Berrios, and more came together to gather supplies, raise funds and traveled back to the country to lend a hand. The MLB donated $1 million towards Hurricane Maria relief efforts and the MLB Players’ Trust also donated $1 million to the cause. Efforts from MLB players and teams raised more than $2,200,000 towards Hurricane Maria relief.

LeBron James’ ‘I Promise’ School

Finally, let’s take a look at one of the greatest ever: LeBron James. You may be able to argue about success on the court, but you cannot argue with his success off of it. LeBron is everywhere. He has TV shows on HBO, is recreating the legendary Space Jam movie, stars in movies, endorses Nike, and has several investments in restaurants and real estate. LeBron also has his own foundation, sends dozens of kids to college in Ohio each year and just created an entire school.

The ‘I Promise’ School is a public school in Akron, Ohio that offers free lunch, bikes and college tuition to its students. The school also offers GED courses and job placement for parents. The school opened this summer with 240 third and fourth grade students and will be serving first through eighth grade by 2022. LeBron may go down as one of the most charitable athletes ever.

Athlete Activism is Here to Stay

There are so many more athletes and campaigns that can go on this list. We’ve talked about Serena Williams and the amazing work she does off the court, and we could talk about hundreds more athletes who care enough to make a difference.

You may not agree with athletes taking the focus off of the game and onto major issues in society, but it’s clear that the attention they are bringing is making a difference. Even if that difference is just a small change in attitude, in the world of sports philanthropy and sport for social change, that is a step in the right direction. Don’t expect athlete activism to go away anytime soon.

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