Do NBA stars wearing “I Can’t Breathe” warm-up T-shirts and the St. Louis Rams’ controversial “Hands up, don’t shoot,” pre-game pose signal the return of the athlete as activist?
Sociology Professor Peter Kaufman weighed in on pro athletes’ responses to the shooting deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner during a Dec. 10 interview with Texas Public Radio.
On the call-in talk radio show “The Source,” Kaufman noted the upsurge in athletes taking a stand on social issues, but said he was not sure if players’ expressed solidarity with Brown and Garner yet constitutes a “full blown movement.”
Referencing the historically negative backlash black athletes have received when attempting to comment on politically-charged issues, Kaufman agreed with fellow panelist Leonard Moore (University of Texas), that athletes are not perceived as humans entitled to express their thoughts publicly.
“We see them as a commodity bought and sold by the owners and the viewers, and we want them to shut up and play. We don’t want them to have opinions,” he said.
Kaufman cited the inequity of athletes who are expected to maintain an apolitical public persona while playing in sports that are “highly politicized.” Sports, Kaufman argued, are linked inextricably with the forces of globalization, capitalism, racism and sexism.
Kaufman criticized the U.S. educational system for not teaching social consciousness, and noted that it’s not just athletes who remain silent.
“We live in a country that’s largely apolitical, that doesn’t have an understanding of how to struggle for social change, maybe even an understanding of how to recognize social injustice. We’ve not taught in our schools about everyday heroes and everyday change-makers,” he said.
Kaufman has taught courses on Social Change and the Sociology of Sport at New Paltz.
His work on the subject of athletes and activism includes “Playing and Protesting: Sport as a Vehicle for Social Change,” published in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues (2010) and “Boos, Bans, and Backlash: The Consequences of Being an Activist Athlete,” published in Humanity and Society (2008).
Kaufman also shared his thoughts on the Brown shooting and racism in the U.S. in an interview with the Tasnim News Agency in Iran on Dec. 8.