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Amplifying the Political Power of Athletes and Sport: Advancing a Sport for Justice Movement through Collective Action

Eli A. Wolff, Power of Sport Lab

Mary A. Hums, University of Louisville

Yannick Kluch, Virginia Commonwealth University

Joseph N. Cooper, University of Massachusetts-Boston

In many ways, the year 2020 has been a turning point in societal discourses focused on social justice. The continued brutal murders, abuses, and human rights violations of Black and Brown Americans, and the collective movement for accountability led by activists of Color, have prompted (some) white Americans in particular to confront our country’s racist past and present alike. As a reflection of society at large, recent calls for racial justice entered the arena of sport at a time that had seen increasing momentum and athlete leadership towards the advancement racial justice and social change in and through the arena of sport. A highly contested and divisive presidential election, racial disparities made apparent by the COVID-19 pandemic, and persistent inequities in sport leadership have prompted athletes to channel their political power to drive social justice action.

Progress for racial and social justice are always met with resistance by the status quo power structures. In a year that saw racial and social justice enter national (and international) discourse like few times before, political figures have used their legislative power to weaken tools that fight systemic racism (such as the banning of Critical Race Theory across several U.S. states), strip minoritized communities of platforms to have their voices heard (e.g., through voter suppression laws), and targeted other vulnerable populations for political gain rather than creating platforms for an ideologically starving base (e.g., by promoting ill-informed laws targeting transgender athletes).

While far from a comprehensive picture of the current political and cultural moment, we call attention to these developments to capture the current moment in sport for social change and offer some guiding questions to further elevate the movement.

What can we learn from the current moment for racial and social justice to drive systemic change? While tremendous has work occurred within specific areas of social justice, there continues to be opportunities to organize and mobilize and to amplify the issues in a unified front. Promoting sport for justice offers the unique opportunity to join together and amplify the voices, messages, resources, and vision collectively.

How do we organize collectively? Instead of working in silos on the social justice topics and themes that are important to us, how can we develop a strategy that builds collective action and helps organize and mobilize at local, national, and global levels. We see great examples of momentum in sport including racial justice, gender equity, LGBTQ+ rights, disability inclusion, rights of children and youth, voting rights, criminal justice reform, promoting democracy, and many other areas. However, the question remains how we can bring together all the different threads of social justice work to create a cohesive mechanism to organize social justice efforts in and through sport in all forms.

How do we do justice to intersectionality while providing nuanced solutions to specific social justice issues? A year that has seen increased attention to racial justice was also marked by sweeping legislation limiting the rights and inclusion of transgender athletes – to give just one example. These issues need addressed in different ways, yet are related which is perhaps best seen in the fact that trans women of Color remain one of the most targeted groups for discriminatory practices in sport. It is, of course, essential to organize around specific focused issues and areas of social justice in and through sport – yet intersectionality must remain an axiom in approaching social justice work.

To discuss some of the questions above, among others, the Muhammad Ali Center is hosting the 2021 Athletes and Social Change Forum focused on the theme “Collective Action: The Political Power of Athletes and Sport”. The Forum will feature two public panels on Thursday, June 24: Panel 1 (1:00 to 2:30 PM EST) will be focused on athlete activists driving change, while Panel 2 (2:30 to 4:00 PM EST) will bring together key stakeholders in sport and social change. The Forum will also hold an invitation-only, closed session the following day to lay the ground work for the creation of a collective movement that brings thought leaders in sport, human rights, and social justice to identify ways in which sportspersons can organize locally, nationally, and internationally, to optimize the political power of athletes and sport and advance a strong united sport for justice movement.

Social justice work in sport requires an optimistic attitude with the critical analysis of a pessimist coupled with the confidence of an opportunist and a pragmatic strategy vision of a realist. Given the historic and current leadership of athlete activists, now is the right time for collectively mobilization to break down silos, foster a united sport for justice movement, and energize a movement to help move the needle in policy, politics, and practice and ultimately transform our society and world for the better.