Athletes as Activists: Speaking Up is a Start, Next Steps Should Look Like This

Bringing attention and awareness to a social cause can be extremely difficult. Luckily for professional athletes, the modern-era of social media and a sharing news ecosystem - messages have never had a stronger platform.

Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James at the 2016 ESPY's.

Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James at the 2016 ESPY's.


Last night at ESPN's annual awards show, the ESPY's, four of the most well-known NBA players: Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James -  started the show with collective strong words and pleas around an end to violence, an end to aggressive racism and an ask for other athletes to get further involved in their communities. Powerful, inspiring, appropriate for the current climate and should be the beginning of the action that is actually needed.

What should athletes do next? I'll give you a few modern-day athlete examples below of how a platform can be used for real change.

During the 1994 Lillehamer Winter Olympics, Norwegian speedskater Johann Olav Koss used his platform to bring awareness to the then Non-Profit, Olympic Aid which brought sport and play programs to children in post-civil war regions. Johann dedicated his Olympic performance and donated his Olympic winnings to Olympic Aid and then, at a press conference, called on all of his countrymen to make some sort of donation to the cause. Within one week, Johann raised over $18M for the organization and started a 20+ year movement which is still going on today with Johann being one of the pioneering leaders in Sport For Development and Peace.

Johann founded the global humanitarian organization, Right To Play in 2002 which I had the privilege of working for. One of our largest challenges in the U.S. was aware-ness raising around Sport For Development - using sport curriculum for social change in some of the most marginalized areas around the world. My job was to bring athletes together as ambassadors for Right To Play and use their image, name, media platform and willingness to help us inform and educate people about our programs. In large scale awareness raising we would hope to not only attract more donors, but also encourage potential policy makers as well as other non-profits to use sport and play curriculum as a way to tackle social issues.

During the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turino, Joey Cheek did something similar to Johann. Joey was appalled by the civil war in Sudan and the lack of attention by global governments around the genocide in Darfur. He also dedicated his Olympics to the issue, donated his medal winnings and raised upwards of $750,000 for organizations supporting lobbying efforts around the issue. Joey then went on to speak out against the situation in Darfur along with George Clooney and Don Cheadle surrounding the release of the documentary film Darfur Now.

Look at the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team just over the last year. They have used their platforms to raise awareness around the gender inequality issues that they are facing in their sport, mobilizing communities, using the media, taking action through policy makers and have made further movement in change. Even Abby Wambach spoke about it at the ESPY's last night in her award acceptance speech. If you've watched Abby since the World Cup last Summer, every time she speaks or does any media, like in this Huffington Post article, she controls the content and turns it into a conversation about advocating for equal pay and equal rights. It's been brilliant to watch her and see her definitively make her post career about this issue engaging her brands, strategic partners and even mentors like Sheryl Sandberg.

Speaking out at last night's ESPY's was a great start for these athletes in bringing more passionate, heartfelt awareness to their causes of racism and violence, something I love to see and see more of.

But what are they going to do next?

Making a call-to-action needs to be followed up by actual action now that they have built a strong community of supporters around them. Last week I wrote about how athletes can be social activists which is a "how to" on how athletes can move forward with their cause.

I was thrilled about last night's public display of awareness, but also a little bit disappointed that there wasn't a next step. When Johann called for change, he had an immediate next step, so did Joey and so has Abby. There were millions of people tuned into the ESPY's last night and millions more hearing about it today with mainstream media stories covering the show.  If you are asking someone to do something and have millions ready to take action, it would be ideal to have something actionable in place.

As Carmelo Anthony wrote in this Guardian Op-Ed yesterday, "So what next? I don’t have the answer. Nobody does. But what we can do is start bringing a continuous awareness and keep this conversation going."

The part about nobody having answers, that's actually not true.

There are so many people and organizations who know what the next steps are whether it's John Lewis who has advocated for Civil Rights his entire career, Deray McKesson who is a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement or the dozens and dozens of grassroots organizations doing work on the ground to bridge communities together. There are people who have the answers all throughout the country and need the partnership of strong voices of athletes like Carmelo, Dwyane, Chris and LeBron to lobby, advocate and mobilize for change in partnership.

Athletes should not expect themselves to make social change on their own. They need to engage social teammates who build their careers around activism to effectively sustain the change that we all know is needed.