Athletes and the Impact of Social & Political Messages

LeBron James

By now we have all witnessed elite-level athletes display social/political statements in the aftermath of several controversial police incidents in America, prompting some to question whether athletes should be permitted to make such statements while in (sports) uniform.  Most recently, a number of athletes wore “I can’t breathe” t-shirts, leading to support by some but anger by others (i.e. police departments).  While this isn’t the first time an athlete has made a political or social statement, the deeper question centers around where the line is when it comes to making a statement versus protecting the brand of your team/sport?

On one hand, owners risk hundreds of millions of dollars when they buy professional franchises, and the success of their investment relies largely on fan support in everything from game tickets to team merchandise.  Owners (and leagues) take great measures to protect their brand, and there are countless examples in the past of players and team personnel being suspended (or released) for saying or doing things that jeopardize the brand.

Players, on the other hand, have the right to free speech just like all Americans do.  They are allowed to have opinions on issues, including controversial issues.  But where are athletes expected to stop when their actions drum up differing feelings from fans that potentially lead them to staying away from supporting the team?  Is the right of owners to protect their brand (and investment) greater than the right of athletes to voice their opinions on important issues while under contract by the team?

It seems that in recent years there have been some causes that have been unanimously supported by leagues, teams, and players — most notably breast cancer awareness month in October.  But the issues we are seeing today appear to be much more polarizing in nature, prompting some to question where brand protection and free speech converge?  Could you go to work tomorrow with a controversial message on your shirt?

In a recent graduate sport psychology course I taught one student made a very interesting presentation on tattoos and sports, and how the look of tattoos was a turn-off to some owners and franchises — so much so that certain players were told directly to keep their bodies clean of ink.  In other examples, hair length and the cessation of facial hair are enforced team policies, evidence again that supports a certain “brand protection” move by owners.  Interestingly, we rarely hear players voice their displeasure about hair policies, but when it comes to social and political issues the disagreements often become white hot.

The convergence between team branding and player voices goes far beyond racial and cultural lines — it is a theoretical place constantly evolving and involving different concerns, issues, and injustices.  Dialogue needs to be ongoing so that mutually agreeable lines can be drawn that allow owners to protect their team branding, and athletes to voice their opinions on issues near and dear to them.