Why We Shouldn’t Tell Student Athletes to “Stick to Sports”

Columnist’s take on high school athletes in social activism


In late August, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play their playoff game in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Soon after, tennis player Naomi Osaka said she would sit out of her semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open, where tournament play was eventually suspended for one day as a stand against racial inequality. More professional athletes have delayed their games as well, but they aren’t the only ones engaging in social activism.

Protests started by pros have trickled down to local high schools, leaving many to question whether or not high school athletes should engage in social activism. For a multitude of reasons, I firmly believe student athletes should stand up for what they believe in without fear of punishment. Moreover, a growing number of people are also recognizing the importance of athlete activism.

On September 9 of this year, The Washington Post reported a 13% increase between August 2018 and September 2020 in U.S. adults who believe kneeling during the national anthem is an appropriate way to protest. 

Back in 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was shunned by many for kneeling during the national anthem, but today, such protests are not as controversial. Despite any remaining ambiguity in the appropriateness of athlete demonstrations, it’s time that we embrace our high school athletes advocating against the issues they see in their world, no matter what that issue may be.

Some people want athletes to “stick to sports,” but in reality, the world of sports and politics are more intertwined than we may realize. Athlete activism has actually been around throughout the history of American sports. 

At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, American sprinters Tommie Brown and John Carlos bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists in a Black power salute as the American national anthem played during their medal ceremony. Even the silver medalist, Peter Norman of Australia, demonstrated support by wearing the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge. All three were kicked out of the Olympic Village and went home facing death threats. However, these athletes, regardless of the consequences, still fought for what they believed in. 

This political statement ultimately reshaped the way athletes fit into social activism. Thanks to these brave athletes, sports will continue to be a platform to speak out against injustice. 

Even after almost sixty years, athlete activism still prevails. As previously mentioned, many athletes and teams, such as the Milwaukee Bucks, have recently protested the police killing of Jacob Blake. They fearlessly take this stand because of their predecessors, and student athletes should be feeling the same courage. 

The real issue right now is that our high school athletes are missing the confidence to stand against pressing problems. Fear of social condemnation from peers, parents and school administrators, or possibly ruining their collegiate or even professional dreams is a very real concern among student athletes, but it’s imperative that they see the whole picture. Student athletes need to know that they will not be punished by the IHSA for peaceful protests. 

Legally, there is no rule against social activism in IHSA sanctioned activities. Section 6.030 of the IHSA Constitution, By-laws & Illustrations requires schools to submit a full written statement of facts as well as a $10 deposit for protesting. However, this official procedure only applies to schools protesting against another school or individual, not students fighting social issues. 

In fact, the IHSA is in full support of the Black Lives Matter movement, so we really shouldn’t be quick to criticize athletes taking a stand. 

On June 15, 2020, the Board of Directors released a statement saying, “Black Lives Matter. The IHSA Board of Directors wholeheartedly believes in this statement, and vows to work together to better educate ourselves, our students, and the IHSA membership on how we can support those impacted by racism and injustice.”

Furthermore, 6 football players from Auburn High School in Rockford, Illinois kneeled during the national anthem in 2016, to which IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson responded with a statement recognizing that the students exercised their right to peacefully protest. He also mentioned how high school sports are an extension of the classroom and that IHSA hopes these actions will produce meaningful discussion within communities. 

Given the evidence above, IHSA athletes are allowed to stand up for what they believe in, so condemnation and repercussions for social activism should have no place in IHSA events. We, the spectators in the stands, are largely to blame for this stigma surrounding athlete activism, but we can also fix this problem.

As spectators, we need to understand that athlete activism is always their choice. We shouldn’t bind athletes to sports and certainly should never tell them to just “Shut Up and Dribble” when they can become the catalyst for progress.

Social justice goes far beyond the games. It is an effective means to spark purposeful change that moves society forward.

However, schools are apolitical, so many believe that it is inappropriate for student athletes to engage in social activism during IHSA sanctioned events, especially considering the amount of influence they have. 

Little kids look up to them, peers cheer them on — even adults can respect their local student athletes. Even so, student athletes can reflect their personal values without violating the neutrality of a school.

Regardless of whether or not you disagree with how and/or why IHSA athletes protest, there is no reason to prevent them from speaking out or to punish them for doing so. Afterall, athletes put on the colors of their school but are born into the color of their skin, so they should feel free to stand up for what they believe in.