“Sports fans should never condone players that do not stand proud for their National Anthem or their country.” These were the words of President Donald Trump, criticizing the ongoing National Football League protests. Athletes had taken up kneeling or raising a fist, in an act of defiance against the traditional ‘right hand over chest’ during the anthem.
Such protest first began in 2016, when former San Francisco 49ers player Colin Kaepernick first protested the national anthem by sitting, and in a few games later, kneeling. The reaction was polarizing, and Kaepernick quickly became the most controversial player in the NFL.
The justification behind such protests was clear. Kaepernick, when asked about his intentions, said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color… There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” For Kaepernick, this was a way for him to express anger at the increasingly problematic state of police violence in the United States.
Fast-forward to late 2017, where more and more players have opted to follow suit, kneeling, locking arms and raising their fists in similar acts of protest. Kaepernick is now unemployed; much scrutiny arose from the fact that Kaepernick, a player arguably better than even many starting quarterbacks, has not been signed by any team- probably a result of his actions in the 2016 season.
As tensions boil, President Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, urging the NFL to take draconic actions against players who protest, have only further exacerbated divisiveness. In Week 7 of the NFL, a total of 22 NFL players have kneeled, with more raising their fists or locking arms. A week after, the majority of the Houston Texans kneeled. NBA athletes have jumped into the conflict; politicians, writers, fans, actors and musicians are getting involved in the quagmire.
In the midst of all this chaos, one can only wonder what this looks like from the outside, to ordinary students and fans. This is especially important to our youth, as many passionately follow athletes and their behavior on and off the court. Many have begun to ask who athletes are. There are two massively contrasting narratives for this question. Some have established that they see athletes as mere entertainers. Others have been open to the idea that athletes wield the power and right to express themselves politically and socially.
The idea of who athletes are a serious issue, because children not only watch and follow athletes, but they perceive athletes as role models. Monica Park, 9th grade student, explained, “I look up to athletes in school or media because I want to become like them as an athlete.” Many athletes have shied away from such a characterization. Charles Barkley, retired NBA player, stated that athletes shouldn’t be considered role models for children. “I’m not a role model. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
Regardless of what athletes think, however, the idea that athletes are role models is reinforced by a study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Children placed athletes among the most inspiring individuals in their lives, at 73 percent, second only to figures like their parents. Athletes are not only admired, but as seen as people who showcase ideal behavior.
The consensus is that athletes are role models, and their actions regularly influence the actions of our youth. In that case, political actions, such as taking a knee, are going to be observed by children all around the world. What kind of message this sends is the subject of concern to many. For example, an athlete’s endorsement of a political candidate may lead to thousands looking into the candidate and potentially even voting for them. Such impact extends far beyond just our school, but to students all around the world. As long as athletes are role models, their political actions will have tangible consequences and continue to influence adolescents.
What do student athletes at Gyeonggi Suwon International School think about this issue? Leo Chun, 9th grade student, expressed his opinions passionately, explaining, “If they want to set up a message that the politician can’t get across, then who else will do it?” On the other side of the argument were students like John Park, 10th grade student, who in a poll argued that athletes shouldn’t be allowed to express themselves politically using their platform. “Obviously, using the power that is gained by respect for political purposes is not the right thing to do.” He went on to mention his willingness to listen to some athletes on such issues. “I think there are some exceptions.” In a survey of Gyeonggi Suwon International School students, students supporting and opposing political expression were roughly split.
Coaches had a firmer and different perspective. Dr. Ryan Dellos, Bible teacher and varsity soccer coach, offered a sharp criticism of mixing the athletic world and politics. When asked whether he agreed with about athletes using their platform for political reasons, he asserted, “Not at all. I think sports and politics should be separate. I don’t think it should crossover whatsoever, as athletes aren’t politicians. There is no need to use that platform to promote any political agendas.” He expressed further concern about what kind of message is sent to youth, mentioning that while he had looked up to athletes a child, he no longer does for their off-the-court behavior. “I don’t think that they set a good example.”
While many people present different opinions on what they see as a fitting role of athletes, the truth is much more complex. It is true that professional athletes’ original purpose was to entertain. Yet the industry has grown, and now athletes hold so much more power than mere entertainment. Even if team owners pressure athletes to refrain from political action on the court, they can always use social media. People can have different opinions, but as long as athletes are looked up to by children, society must be vigilant in fostering higher quality discourse among our youth when it comes to the actions of athletes. Stop the Twitter flame wars, and start the meaningful conversation.