As high-profile events periodically prove, politics and athletics have long had a love-hate relationship, the affinity ebbing and flowing with the cultural tides. In the tumultuous 1960s, for instance, stars like Muhammed Ali, Arthur Ashe and John Carlos used their notoriety to embolden the major social movements of the time. Then came the 1980s and 1990s, which saw the sports world depoliticized in an age of “Just Do It” and “greed is good.” For every Charles Barkley using Nike commercials to forward social messages about role models, there were far more Michael Jordans who avoided any political statements whatsoever.
Skip forward to 2012–a superheated moment primed by seething protest campaigns and a divisive presidential election. Not surprisingly, the sports world has again shifted, becoming just as politically fraught as the society it entertains–and whether or not you agree with a particular sports icon’s opinion, the larger change is a welcome development for participatory democracy.
In the last few years, we’ve seen sports activism at every locus on the ideological continuum. On the right, football phenom Tim Tebow starred in an anti-abortion Superbowl ad. In the transpartisan middle, Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas refused to attend the White House’s Stanley Cup ceremony because he said he “believe(s) the Federal government has grown out of control.” And on the left, Major League Baseball teams have led public campaigns against anti-gay bullying.
No matter the issue, sports is now involved. The NFL players association has proudly supported public workers’ high profile fights. Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen (clumsily) highlighted the hypocrisy of an American government that at once embraces various dictators but shuns Cuba’s autocratic regime. And, of course, LeBron James organized Miami Heat players into a hoodie-themed photo in solidarity with those demanding an investigation into the shooting of Trayvon Martin.