“President Mark Emmert and the NCAA Board of Governors recognize the important role social engagement has on driving positive societal change. The recent demonstrations following the tragic killing of George Floyd showed the world the power of protest, and student-athletes across the country were at the center of that movement. We commend NCAA student-athletes who recognized the need for change and took action through safe and peaceful protest. We encourage students to continue to make their voices heard on these important issues, engage in community activism and exercise their Constitutional rights.”

- NCAA Board of Governors Statement on Social Activism (June 12, 2020)

Activism is the practice of taking intentional action to bring about social, political, economic or environmental change. It can take many forms but often relies on a strategic, organized and action-oriented approach to address persistent systemic issues in society.

Social justice activism works toward the “full and equitable participation of people of all social identity groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs” (Bell, 2016). It involves “advocating for people without power or voice, while also cognizing a sense of responsibility to combat the problems and injustices of society” (Lee & Cunningham, 2019).

There are many ways to practice activism. Some examples include:

  • Campaigning for (or against) a cause.
  • Participating in protests and demonstrations.
  • Developing and advocating for (or against) policies and legislation.
  • Launching groups or organizations to promote a social cause.
  • Participating in community building.
  • Developing communication pieces (op-eds, social media, etc.).
 

Student-Athlete Activism

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can awaken hope where there was previously only despair. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”

- Nelson Mandela, activist, revolutionary and political leader

Sport is a powerful tool for social change. Research shows that there are commonalities between being an athlete and being an activist. Sport develops social consciousness, meritocratic ideals, responsible citizenship and interdependence (Kaufman and Wolff, 2010). Athletes develop confidence, communication skills, teamwork and other qualities through playing their sport that support their activist efforts.

A recent study conducted by the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality surveyed more than 2,000 college student-athletes and found that 79% of respondents felt that student-athletes have an obligation to raise awareness about social justice issues. In addition, 83% of student-athletes surveyed were willing to speak up and do more about issues related to student-athlete activism. Women and athletes of color, individuals who hold less privileged identities in American society, are also more likely to engage in activism than their white male counterparts (Mac Intosh, Martin, & Kluch, 2020).

Student-athletes are uniquely positioned, as campus and community leaders, to use their voice and platform to drive positive social change on topics such as racial justice, gender equity, LGBTQ+ inclusion, environmental activism, sexual violence prevention, immigration and mental health.

 

NCAA Student-Athlete Activism and Racial Justice Engagement Study

In the fall of 2020, NCAA Research surveyed over 24,000 student-athletes to examine the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their well-being and explore social and civic engagement topics. Among the key findings:

  • More than 80% of student-athletes reported discussing politics and performing volunteer work in the past year, and over a third reported having demonstrated for a cause. Black student-athletes were significantly more likely to have communicated about a cause (77%) or demonstrated for a cause (53%) than their peers across other racial/ethnic groups.
  • A majority of student-athletes believed that their coaches, teammates and athletics department would support them for taking a stance publicly.
  • Nearly 90% of student-athletes surveyed indicated that they had conversations focused on race or racial justice with family or friends within the prior six months. Approximately 80% indicated that they had made an effort to learn more about race and racial justice on their own. Overall, just over half of all participants indicated having conversations with their coaches about race and racial justice. Among Black student-athletes, that rate was 67%.
  • Many student-athletes also publicly participated in the racial justice movement in the summer and fall of 2020. Over half posted content about race or racial justice on social media, and over one-quarter participated in a protest or rally for racial justice. Black student-athletes reported the highest levels of racial justice engagement.

 

History of Student-Athlete Activism

Historically, student-athletes have been at the forefront of many social movements in the United States.

  • During the civil rights movement, Black athletes used their platform to call for an end to racial discrimination and injustices — with UCLA’s Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) becoming a central figure of the movement. Other notable change agents included the “Syracuse Eight,” a group of Syracuse football players who sacrificed their athletic careers by speaking out against racial injustice.
  • In 1976, Yale women’s rowing student-athlete Chris Ernst led her team in staging a protest calling attention to inequities in the treatment of the university’s women’s and men’s teams. Their protest helped define Title IX, one of the landmark laws for gender equity in the U.S.
  • In 1990, Texas track student-athlete Shola Lynch worked to organize a rally that saw more than 100 student-athletes marching through campus calling for racial justice following a series of racist incidents on campus.
  • In 2003, Manhattanville women’s basketball student-athlete Toni Smith turned her back to the U.S. flag during the national anthem to protest the U.S. involvement in the war in Iraq.
  • In 2010, Maryland wrestling student-athlete Hudson Taylor founded Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization working to end homophobia and transphobia in sports through education and awareness.
  • In 2014, Knox women’s basketball player Ariyana Smith lay on the floor for 4 minutes and 30 seconds prior to a game to protest the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s body had been left in the street for four and a half hours after he was killed.
  • In 2015, football players at Missouri announced they would boycott all football-related activities until university officials resigned due to their negligence in addressing racial injustice on campus. The players’ protest was successful and became a defining moment in situating student-athletes’ voices in the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • In 2018, Oregon State student-athletes Nathan Braaten and Taylor Ricci launched a mental health awareness initiative, the Dam Worth It campaign. The campaign seeks to utilize the influential platform of sport to open up the conversation around mental health and work to end the stigma.

Now more than ever, in light of recent and pervasive racial injustices, student-athletes across the country have made their voices heard to advocate for their beliefs. The actions below capture some examples of how student-athletes are practicing their activism.

  • In October 2020, the three divisional Student-Athlete Advisory Committees and the Board of Governors Student-Athlete Engagement Committee collaborated to create a national Unity Pledge and logo, symbolic gestures to generate stronger unity among the NCAA’s 1,100-plus schools and nearly 500,000 student-athletes.
  • In January 2021, the Marquette men’s basketball team wore black uniforms to a home game against UConn in a show of support for Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot by law enforcement in Kenosha, Wisconsin. It was announced earlier that day that no charges would be filed against the officer who shot Blake.
  • In January 2021, most of Tennessee’s women’s basketball players opted to kneel during the national anthem before a home game against Arkansas in the wake of the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

From protests to social media posts, local efforts to conferencewide initiatives, student-athletes have been driving the charge to make this historic moment a social movement.

 

The Power of the Student-Athlete Voice: Activism for Social Impact

Action Strategies for Activism

While we often picture activists as outspoken and persistent, know that all personality types have a place in activist movements. Reflect on your own strengths and unique personality to identify how you can best contribute to activist causes. Roles in activism range from those providing a vision for a cause and those serving as points of connection between different resources to those raising funds and providing emotional support to peers.

Activism starts with education on the cause you are fighting for — but it should not end there. Continue to educate yourself on the topic you are passionate about and use that knowledge to drive your actions.

As a student-athlete, you have visibility on campus. That visibility can be a powerful tool to promote your activism. Show up to events that promote your cause. Organize meetings to connect people who share your passion for your cause. Use social media to call attention to your cause and amplify the voices of those fighting for your cause.

If you are participating in community building and want to mobilize your community to support your activism, establish lines of communication that help you disseminate information quickly and efficiently. For example, if you are launching a group of student-athletes to advance racial justice, identify a strategy and technologies that can be used to communicate with group members. Communicate with your coaches, administrators and peers about your views and discuss how they can best support your activism.

Your athletic department may have resources available to help you promote your causes. For instance, every athletic department has an athletics diversity and inclusion designee who may be able to help support you in your activist efforts. Many athletic departments are launching diversity and inclusion task forces and committees that can also support your activism. Most college campuses have resources available that you can use to amplify the impact of your activism. Resources may include cultural centers on campus, diversity offices, academic departments, faculty with expertise in areas of your activism or staff committed to the cause (e.g., chief diversity officers). There may also be student groups on campus that you can join to support your activism. Community resources that can support activist efforts include community action groups, nonprofit organizations, city governments and human relations commissions.

While your individual voice has immense value in itself, there is power in establishing a collective voice for your cause. Work with your campus and conference Student-Athlete Advisory Committee to align the messaging and initiatives for your activist cause and make sure affiliated campus, conference and athletic groups are aware of your plan prior to launching the initiative.

Your time on campus is limited, so make sure you create the infrastructure for current and future student-athletes to support your cause. This infrastructure can be created by forming an official student organization or launching a SAAC task force/committee dedicated to your cause. As a member of an official student organization, for example, you can often request funding and meeting space from your school. If your activism is relevant to the mission of the athletic department, ask for the cause to be anchored in the department’s strategic plan. In addition, review your school’s strategic plan or mission statement to see where there might be alignment.

Allies are members of the dominant group that advocate for the less privileged group. Mentors provide guidance and support for your activism. Sponsors are individuals who have the power to push your cause when you are not in the room. For your activism to have the most impact, you will need all three. Identify members of your community (e.g., coaches, senior administrators) who buy into your vision. Make sure you address what you may want from each group/individual and how they can assist with the plan.

Every athletic department has:

Activist work is often met with resistance. Strive to seek common ground with those you may not agree with or who may not have a similar lived experience to you.

This work can be emotionally draining — especially for members of marginalized communities. Make sure to prioritize your mental and physical health when participating in activism. Take frequent mental health days and use your school’s counseling center or office to identify coping strategies for when you face resistance to your activism or feel emotionally drained.