“Shut up and play” not an option now or ever

“Shut up and play.”

This trope has been used countless times throughout sports history to silence players when they voice their political views. It works to shape sports into a sector of society untouched by politics and dehumanizes the players themselves. It encourages the idea that sports should be a place of entertainment, a space to escape the mess and stress of daily life. In reality, politics shape and dictate every aspect of our lives, and they have always had a place in sports.

Sports occupy a tremendous amount of space in our society. Professional and collegiate sports use extensive public resources for training facilities, stadiums, marketing and advertisements. Globally, hosting major sporting events such as the World Cup and the Olympics is highly coveted. Professional athletes are given considerable financial compensation and extreme social prestige. Not only are sports a major spectacle and economic undertaking, but they are also reflections of gender, race and social class hierarchies in our society.

If politics are in every aspect of human life, and sports are such a massive part of human life, why does there continue to be pushback when professional athletes use their platform to discuss politics?

It’s important to note that athletes throughout history have used their platform to speak out.

1961: Bill Russell and other members of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Boston Celtics boycotted a game in protest of segregation after being refused service at a Kentucky restaurant.Bill Russell and other Boston Celtics members boycotted a game in protest of segregation after being refused service at a Kentucky restaurant.

1967: Muhammad Ali protested the Vietnam War and refused to serve in the military to fight the Vietnamese. He explained, “shoot them for what? They never called me n—, they never lynched me…they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father…shoot them for what?”

1968: At the 200-meter final at the Mexico City Olympic Games, Tommie Smith (gold medalist) and John Carlos (silver medalist) raised their fists at the podium to protest discrimination.

Photo credit: Ren Rader

illustration by Ren Rader

1976: The Yale women’s rowing team went into the women’s athletic director’s office and took off their shirts, revealing “Title IX” written on their bodies to protest Yale’s lack of women’s athletic facilities.

2010: The NBA’ Phoenix Suns wore jerseys saying “Los Suns,” protesting Arizona’s passage of a much stricter immigration policy.

2012: The NBA’s Miami Heat wore black hooded sweatshirts to protest the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

2014: Missouri Knox College basketball player Ariyana Smith and some members of the St. Louis Rams protested the shooting of Michael Brown by raising their hands in a “don’t shoot” gesture.

2016: San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, refused to stand during the national anthem, stating: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

2016: Shortly after Kaepernick, U.S. Women’s soccer player Megan Rapinoe and the Women’s National Basketball Association’s (WNBA) Indiana Fever team began kneeling as well. Over the years, kneeling during the anthem has reverberated across sports.

2020: There have been protests across sports due to the most recent police shootings of black Americans. All across sports, teams have worn jerseys supporting Black Lives Matter and using slogans to promote change. As the violence continues, teams have begun boycotting games. The NBA, WNBA, Major League Baseball (MLB), National Hockey League (NHL), tennis and soccer have all had teams refusing to play to take a stand against racism and police brutality.

Politics within sports is not new and has a long history; however, I believe that some aspects have made political talk in sports more visible and more susceptible to criticism starting in 2016.

In 2016, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton and became president, and his frequent use of Twitter situated political conversations into a new, real-time and easily accessible space. Suddenly, direct conversations about politics and political stances situated themselves at the forefront of our social media filled lives. This served to make criticisms and support for political protests in sports much easier. Since 2020 is an election year, the momentum and potential for a leadership change raises both intense encouragement and criticism for athletes taking a stand depending on what side people fall.

I find that this criticism towards athletes is extremely harmful and helps undermine the ramifications that politics have on individual’s lives. The “shut up and play” discourse dehumanizes the athletes expressing their opinions. Professional athletes are often viewed as objects: factors used to bet on games or just images in a TV ad. Additionally, most sports fans never actually come in contact with these athletes, so sometimes it’s easy to hold them up on a pedestal rather than think of them as real people who go through daily life.

Saying “shut up and play” to these mostly black, POC, LGBTQ, or female athletes when they speak out against injustices that directly impact their communities and their lives invalidates their humanity. The harm that they or other members of their marginalized identity could experience due to political decisions is very real. Why shouldn’t professional athletes get to use the platform they worked hard to get in order to address concerns for marginalized communities? They are not just objects for our own entertainment.

“You want us to be role models for your kids. You want us to endorse your products. You parade us around. It’s like, we’re not just here to sit in the glass case for you to look at. That’s not how this is going to go,” Megan Rapinoe said to the New York Times when discussing if politics have a place in sports.

Wishing that these opinions would stop and hoping that sports can remain an “apolitical” entity that provides escape and entertainment is an expression of privilege. It’s a privilege to remove yourself from political conversations. For some, those political conversations can translate into life or death. Some don’t have the option to escape this reality.

Ultimately, sports have always been political. Maybe our tendency as a nation to try to find escapes and remove ourselves from politics is indicative of how we’ve ended up where we are today. Politics have real, tangible consequences, and we need to hear about those from the impacted communities. We need to listen when marginalized groups speak. It is time to confront these issues head-on and stop expecting an escape from accountability.