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Commentary: ‘Stick to sports’ is dead

Tennis player Naomi Osaka at Wimbledon in 2017. Osaka is outspoken in her support of Black Lives Matter and has been a voice for social justice and change. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/SI.ROBI

There’s no beating around the bush — we love big egos in sports. It may be bravado, but we’re here for it if athletes can back it up with skill. Big sports egos add a layer of theatrics to the game, and the games we love wouldn’t be the same without them. 

Floyd Mayweather is arrogant and has a big mouth, but man, he’s 49-0. Michael Jordan is loudmouthed and essentially bullied and dragged his teammates to six NBA Championships, but he’s the greatest of all time. Zlatan Ibrahimović compares himself to a lion any chance he gets, but he’s one of the greatest soccer players in the modern era.

But the response isn’t the same when athletes use their voices to stand up for racial injustice. They’re shunned and told to “stick to sports.” Why are empty egos accepted but voices for change are demonized?

It’s way past the time we recognize athletes, just like anyone else, have the power to use their voices for positive change. Athletes’ voices often carry the most weight, and the phrases “stick to sports” and “shut up and dribble” no longer have a place in our vernacular.

Tennis player Naomi Osaka — who has Japanese and Haitian heritage — explained why these phrases are worn out in an interview with Time magazine. 

“Everyone has a vote and a say, I think it’s really weird that athletes get told to just stick to sports,” Osaka said in an interview with Time magazine. “You would never go up to a barber and say just stick to cutting hair. It’s a weird stigma that gets attached and I don’t even know where it comes from.”

As an ardent supporter of Black Lives Matter, Osaka was heavily criticized on social media for even having a viewpoint and was told, more or less, to stick to sports.

Osaka has also doubled down on her stance on BLM, saying that this goes much deeper than politics. It’s a human rights issue. We may joke and say that elite athletes are from another planet, but it’s not easy to prove that athletes aren’t human. Weighing in on human rights issues is well within their lane.

It’s easy to say internet trolls will do what they do best and to block out the noise. And that often works on random people on Twitter. But criticism of athletes’ voices goes beyond internet trolls.

Earlier in June, Fox News’ Laura Ingraham defended Drew Brees’ comments on kneeling for the national anthem.

“He’s allowed to have his view on what kneeling and what the flag means to him,” Ingraham said. “He’s a person, he has some worth I would imagine.”

Ingraham had the opposite point of view two years ago when she said LeBron James and Kevin Durant should “shut up and dribble” after they criticized President Donald Trump.

Where’s the double standard? Whether you agree with their opinions or not, telling athletes to “stick to sports” or “shut up and dribble” is far from ridiculous. It’s unacceptable and outdated.

Having a strong voice shouldn’t need to be backed by skill like having a strong ego. In that same sense, being an elite athlete doesn’t mean being excluded from using one’s voice. 

Shutting up and sticking to sports isn’t an option anymore because athletes have a role that extends beyond their skill in the game.

Playing the game is what they’re paid to do, but athletes are also given the gift of a platform to speak up. It’s their responsibility to use it to push for social justice.