The Cavalier Daily
Serving the University Community Since 1890

LOTHROP: Student-athletes are more empowered than ever to speak out

The rise of social media and other factors allow for newfound activism from athletes

<p>The Defund the Police Block Party and Noise Demonstration in June 2020 was one of many demonstrations in Charlottesville that summer.</p>

The Defund the Police Block Party and Noise Demonstration in June 2020 was one of many demonstrations in Charlottesville that summer.

Almost as long as there have been athletics, athletes have used their elevated status to promote positive social change. One of the first recorded instances of sports intersecting with social unrest occurred in 532 AD in Justian’s Byzantine Empire when supporters of separate chariot racing teams, the Greens and the Blues, were arrested in connection with deaths caused by the Nika Revolt the previous year. The Blues and the Greens were traditionally strong rivals — much like Virginia and Virginia Tech — and together, asked Justinian to pardon them. This led to six weeks of rioting, 30,000 deaths and the burning of the landmark church Hagia Sophia.

As athletics have changed, athletes and their political activities have changed too. An unhappy Irish long jumper competing for Great Britain in the 1906 Olympics resorted to climbing a flagpole to replace the Union Jack with the colors of Ireland. As technology and globalization moved forward, so did the people’s abilities to broadcast their discontentment with authority. During the 1968 Olympics, Black sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists to protest racial inequality — live and in color on television.

Social media and modern news outlets bring even more opportunities for athletes to express their political views. Millions watched former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneel during the national anthem before NFL games, which happened for the first time on Aug. 16, 2016. Millions more offered up opinions on social media, and reactions spread into other forms of media commentary in seemingly every way imaginable.

Students at the University have a similarly strong history of vocal political advocacy, despite the administration's conservative history. Since day one, the student body has taken pride in student self-governance — a pride that still remains to this day.

In 1970, nearly 1,500 University students gathered to protest the murder of four Kent State students at an anti-Vietnam War protest. In 1983, roughly 100 individuals marched on administrative offices with a list of demands — ones that date back to as early as 1970 — including increasing acceptance rates and financial aid for Black students. The summer of 2020 saw a variety of demonstrations throughout Charlottesville, including the Defund the Police Block Party and Noise Demonstration that was led by a group of Black women. Even as recently as last spring, there were a scattering of small, socially distanced protests related to the police shooting of Black teenager Xzavier Hill.

The rise of social media has made activism much easier and more accessible. Almost every injustice is broadcast everywhere instantly, and things like Instagram infographics make it easy to share information about relevant issues and steps people can take to address them.

Previously, if student athletes wanted to partake in activism, they could mostly only do so through a scheduled media interview, during which administration may hold final say over the content, or through conversations with teammates, friends and family. Now, social media also permits athletes to reach larger groups of people and spread messages far and wide.

Athletes gained an even greater degree of freedom over the summer when the NCAA enabled athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness. The decision allowed athletes to become more financially independent from schools and coaches, which could in turn allow them to speak more freely if they aren’t as worried about a critical scholarship being revoked.

Coupled with the traditionally conservative administration loosening its top buttons, this increased reach and freedom has enabled Virginia’s student athletes to speak out more than ever before. Virginia’s most well-known student athletes — like senior point guard Kihei Clark, for example — have gained large followings on social media, eclipsing more than 60,000 total followers on Instagram. With such a wide audience, these players are more empowered than ever to use their voices for good.

Even before the name, image and likeness decision, however, Virginia athletes were making national headlines for their activism. Recently departed wide receiver Terrell Jana, who now plays for the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League, made national headlines last season by deciding to play without a name on the back of his jersey. The graduate of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy said he did this in honor of the more than 4,000 enslaved laborers who lived, worked and built the University. Jana and several teammates also co-founded Groundskeepers, a community outreach program focused on initiating change through education. 

“It’s about providing a space for student athletes to have these tough conversations, but also how can we impact the community and be a service to them,” Jana said in an interview with the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

Groundskeepers organized a “Take Back our Grounds” march in August 2020 from Heather Heyer Way to the Rotunda to honor Heyer, who was killed during the white supremacist Unite the Right rally on Aug. 12, 2017. This is one moving example of athletes using their platforms to enact change. Even though Jana is no longer playing for the Cavaliers, other current athletes have followed in his footsteps to use their own voices to speak out about a myriad of issues. 

Senior discus thrower Sadey Rodriguez is a member of the nonprofit organization EcoAthletes, a group focused on educating athletes about climate change so they can inspire others and lead climate action. Rodriguez is also one of more than 200 international athletes who signed the COP26 Sports Community Manifesto — a document that will be presented at this week's COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Rodriguez also co-founded Green Athletics, a partnership with the Office of Sustainability to support student athlete activism in sustainability. 

"It's not enough for us to merely support things like 'reusable straws' anymore," Rodriguez said. "It's time to go big. Since I am privileged enough to have an athlete's platform, I am happy to use it to urge the leaders of the COP to take real climate action to help people who don't have a voice."

Athletes have never been more empowered than they are at this moment to speak up for positive change, and chances are they will only become more outspoken in the future. While Rodriguez and Jana will probably not end up like the supporters of the Blues and Greens, they may use their national platform to help make the University, Charlottesville and the world a better place.