Race Relations

Professional Athletes Are the Strongest Advocates for Social Change

Are you mad? Because I am - mad and disgusted as hell that our country still suffers from so much violence - a symptom of the continual dysfunctional racist ideologies existing at the core of America. Writing here, posting on my social media accounts, being involved with an international diplomatic organization and keeping this a topic among friends will only go so far. I don't have millions or even thousands of followers, not much reach. But those who do, professional athletes - those who have influence with large fan followings and a strong media presence have power to mobilize and make change and have done it before. If you think about it, pro athletes have been trained their entire lives to strategize and implement around goals.

Today Carmelo Anthony used his platform to create a strong call-to-action to his fellow athletes and I'm sure to the millions who follow him. All which deserves recognition, applause and movement. Paraphrasing below and channeling the civil rights advocacy of Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Jim Brown, posting the photo above from 45 years ago:

"I'm calling for all my fellow ATHLETES to step up and take charge. Go to your local officials, leaders, congressman, assemblymen/assemblywoman and demand change. There's NO more sitting back and being afraid of tackling and addressing political issues anymore. Those days are long gone. We have to step up and take charge. We can't worry about what endorsements we gonna lose or whose going to look at us crazy. I need your voices to be heard. We can demand change. We just have to be willing to. THE TIME IS NOW. IM all in. Take Charge. Take Action. DEMAND CHANGE. Peace7 #StayMe7o"

So the good news here is that the modern day Athlete Advocates wanting to mobilize together can learn from those who have come before them and use their incredibly powerful platforms, I'm not just talking about social media, but their influence on traditional media, brands, teams and fan bases- to all group together to make a change. Control the content and conversation.

Here's a super quick game-plan for athletes (and anyone) to use:

  • Clearly Define Your Outcome - What is that you want to achieve with your advocacy? What change do you want to make and, if you are asking those to be involved, what is it exactly that they will be able to do? What is the message consistency that can be used?
  • Create an Engaged Leadership Group - Lending names to causes is fine and dandy, but how engaged are your fellow leaders? Will they show up to rallies, make phone calls, take meetings or just send out tweets and Facebook posts? Are your cohorts putting their money where their mouth is or are they just doing it for some media fluff. If the latter, politely say "Thank you, but we're good" and make sure to get engaged leaders involved with you who will get their hands dirty.
  • Lean Hard on Allies - who are the other experts in the field that you are advocating for and what work are they doing on the ground? How can lending your voice, influence and media power help what they are already working towards? Is it Senators, Governors, NGO's and other social activists who do this as full-time work? 
  • Strategize on most Effective Media Outreach - Where are the best and most effective media platforms to publicly call on others to take action? Athletes personal social media sites are pretty perfect nowadays and other media platforms are great with Op-Ed pieces. Is this just for the sports audience or a broader fan base? Could always be multiple outlets and platforms to get the word out.
  • What Does Success Look Like? - How will you know that your actions worked? What is your timeline? Who is keeping track (since you have a more-than-full time job already). These should all be part of the strategy so that there is follow through and agreements with whomever you are asking to help with social change.

Here's the thing about advocacy, standing up for issues and making change that is incredibly relatable to athletes everywhere, professional or not - YOU HAVE TO HAVE A GAME PLAN.

If you truly want to make change, there needs to be a solid strategy in place around a strong team with strong leadership to keep everyone on board and moving forward. Completely analogous to sports - the translatable skills are already in place. Would you ever just go out and state "I Want to Win a Championship" and then never have a strategy? No. So don't do that with your advocacy work either.

It's been 45 years since a powerful group of athletes have come together to demand change as it relates to racial issues in this country. Some may think it's been too long, but at the end of the day, we should be proud that we have a powerful group ready to fight for what they know is right and take a risk at losing financially, to gain ethically....exponentially. 


O.J.: Made In America Made Me Love ESPN Again

Admittedly I started to become disenchanted with ESPN's 30 for 30 series. I felt like it was over-saturated, films were lost (including an important one on the Global NGO, Right To Play by Frank Marshall) and the content only scratched the surface of deeper social issues told through sports.  This might be a shocker to some as my career IS the sports industry and in recent years I've been writing and producing sports documentaries mainly in the social issue space.

The reason I was getting frustrated with ESPN - and let me clarify by saying that some of the nicest and best people in sports are good friends and long-time ESPN'ers -  the frustration was that I wanted them to do better, be better and use their global platform to really tell sports stories of social significance. And not to play to the corporate pressure of sugar-coating journalism. ESPN wasn't really taking on the heavy-hitting responsibility and I was disappointed. They backed out of "League of Denial" about concussion issues, there was a watered down version of coverage around gender inequality in women's soccer, not enough attention is given to the good work that most current and former athletes do outside of their sport on a daily basis. I just felt that the journalism was skewing more towards sensationalism than fairness. What really sent me over the edge was the recent ESPN The Magazine cover story on how Tiger Woods was using some unconventional coping methods after losing his father. The two decades of tireless work Tiger has done through his foundation was completely left out. The disgust was mounting.

Some might have felt my finger-wagging, the SMH's (shaking my head) and frustration about not covering these sorts of humanitarian social stories and narratives. The judgement was certainly building in a not-so-positive way towards ESPN. Seeing the marketing and knowing it was coming out, I hadn't planned on watching it. But after the 10th article singing it's praises,  I was overwhelmed by the mega-media attention of "OJ: Made In America". Particularly a Vanity Fair article that stated this 5-part docu-series could be this generation's "Roots". So I pessimistically opened up my ESPN app on Apple TV and started to watch. To my pleasant - loved to be proven wrong- surprise, I have to overwhelmingly agree with Vanity Fair: that this is one of the most important pieces of film to watch as it relates to race relations in the US in recent memory.

Here's a short story to tell you why:  one of my best friends- who is also a multi-generational Jewish Angeleno like myself, but not a sports fan - said she watched part of the ESPN series and couldn't wait to watch the rest. While we were sitting on the grass at LACMA Jazz Friday last night surrounded by the gorgeous culturally diverse faces of Los Angeles, she and I spoke about how we were shocked to learn that there were such deep racist ideologies here in Los Angeles going back decades. The real shock of it was that the disturbing discrimination in the city's government was taking place less than 20 miles from where we grew up deep in the San Fernando Valley and we had no idea, we didn't feel it or hear it despite both going to incredibly culturally diverse schools. We spoke about how "Straight Outta Compton" was also an incredibly important piece of film to understand LAPD's abusively discriminant relationship with LA's black community. And how films like "Boyz N The Hood" should be re-released to remind and teach a new generation of the unreal discrimination that took place for decades for the black community in LA.

Three other times this week I had conversations with people about this series - my Jewish aunt in her 60's living in San Diego, a Jamaican doctor in his 40's who grew up in an affluent U.S. east-coast neighborhood and a black comedian from Alabama in his 30's - who all felt like the docu-series opened their eyes to racial issues they didn't know existed. All exemplifying how this story transcends sports, race, geography and age. It is hitting the hearts and minds of every person watching it.

The project obviously tells the story of the rise and fall of an American hero in O.J. Simpson. We are all aware of the skeleton of the story through the 1994 murder trial. However, the way Ezra Edelman blatantly laid the foundation of racism in the U.S. and Los Angeles leading up to and juxtaposing O.J.'s college and professional career was just beautifully executed, so well done. There was no dancing around issues both in what other black athletes were facing or how O.J. didn't want to identify as even being black while other prominent black athletes of his era like Muhammed Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar risked their careers for black civil rights advocacy.

This ESPN series - much like FX's American Crime Story series - then meticulously illustrated how race became the key component of the murder trial and the strategy that the defense eventually used to acquit Simpson of murder. Race, racism, racist words, the depiction of O.J. being a part of the black community and playing with a black vs. white emotion around racism were all used in a tug-of-war like manner to win the case. These narratives were never addressed during the trial probably because of the prosecution's unwillingness to challenge this false illustration for fear of being accused of being racist themselves.

So a hearty bravo to ESPN, Conor Schnell, Ezra Edelman and everyone who was part of this project. Being lucky enough to have incredibly talented filmmakers mentor me in this industry, I've learned that the point of film is to move the audience, teach them something they didn't know, enlighten them and make them think differently about themselves. OJ: Made In America has done this. ESPN is finally using it's broad, strong shoulders to take on social issues as told through sports stories. I hope it continues because these stories are too important not to be told.   It's refreshing to see these truths being revealed now, 20+ years later and especially by a sports media giant acknowledging that there is a greater social responsibility in fairly telling this story.