America has always had a complicated relationship with its athletes. When it comes to game day, athletes are warriors revered by millions, emulated by children, lionized in living rooms and bars for their acrobatic actions on the court or field. Their faces are on clothing, their likenesses in video games. But when it comes to Election Day, or any other day that involves expressing an opinion about social or political issues, athletes are told to keep their politics as private as a jockstrap. Financially, mixing sports and politics is bad for business. Fans want to indulge in the escapism of the sport without the heavy baggage of real life interfering.
Despite the fact that I’ve been writing about politics longer than I played sports, many of my critics begin their comments with “Stick to basketball, Kareem.” By dismissing someone’s views based on their profession, such critics are also dismissing their own opinions as frivolous (“Stick to plumbing!” “Stick to proctology!”). What vocation makes a person an expert on all social or political matters? As we’ve seen during the presidential campaign, even the candidates aren’t experts.
The idea that an athlete can’t think is a stereotype of the dumb jock who is too busy jamming adorable kids into lockers to know anything about the world around him except what Coach tells him. Those days are over, folks.
Thirty football players from the University of Missouri created instant cultural change when their boycott of team activities over the school president’s handling of race issues forced his resignation. The shame is that until the boycott threatened to cost $1 million in fees for canceling a game, university officials had been impassive.
But the University of Missouri episode is just the latest example of high-profile athlete activism. Last November, five players from the St. Louis Rams took the field with a “Hands up, don’t shoot” gesture to protest the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The following month, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and other NBA players wore I can’t breathe shirts before a game. And in the days after the attacks in Paris, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers won support for condemning a fan who shouted, “Muslims suck.”
For some, the athlete as activist represents a welcome evolution. For others, it’s a sign of the end times, sports edition, with athletes shattering the fourth wall of sports theater. What if, now that athletes have found their voice, they won’t shut up? The genie is out of the locker, and no amount of Ace bandages can bind him up again.
Governments have long used athletes as positive PR for foreign policy. In 1971, the U.S. table-tennis team’s friendly exchange with China kicked off ping-pong diplomacy. And in 1980, the U.S. and more than 60 other countries boycotted the Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
When countries use athletes to promote policy, the athletes are given little choice. But when athletes stand up for causes they believe in, they are often condemned. Muhammad Ali learned that lesson in 1967 when he refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War on religious grounds and was convicted of draft evasion and stripped of his heavyweight title. The Supreme Court overturned the verdict, but Ali lost four years of fights–and millions of dollars. Ali’s sacrifice inspired me to boycott the 1968 Olympics to call attention to the rampant racial injustice of the time, which resulted in people calling me un-American. (Ironically, the athletes who complained about the government boycotting the 1980 Olympics were also called un-American.) Some black athletes who participated in the 1968 Olympics chose to use it as a platform, though. Gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos, both African American, raised black-gloved fists in a Black Power salute during the 200-m medal ceremony.
Forty-seven years later, that’s what today’s athletes are doing: adding their voices to the national conversation on racial disparity. If they sometimes need to flex their power a little to be heard, well, they’re just following in the same tradition as their government. Democracy is not a solo concert; it’s a choir of voices blending to create a beautiful sound. Sure, there’s a discordant note now and then, but even those sounds help the rest of us harmonize.
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This appears in the November 30, 2015 issue of TIME.