Charlottesville Reminds Us Sports Can Bring People Together

08/14/2017 08:21 pm ET Updated Aug 15, 2017

The violent extremism on display in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend was a wake-up call to anyone in our country who believes in equality and justice for all. We all can – and must – do better.

In a nation that seems deeply divided, sports provide a continuing gathering place where people come together to celebrate their team. And beyond the game – when it comes to important societal issues – athletes show up, they care and, oftentimes, they can bring people to the table who wouldn’t otherwise be there.

Last week, thousands of sports fans descended on Canton, Ohio, to celebrate the induction of six new members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Before the induction ceremony, Hall of Fame President David Baker spoke to a crowd that included nearly every living member of the Hall of Fame. He spoke about their role, as leaders, in bringing people together to improve our country.

“This is a game, and we are a people that can bring people together,” he said. “The time to huddle up is now.”

Much of the discussion about professional athletes seeking to use their platforms to drive social change has focused on former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. His individual choice to kneel during the national anthem provoked cheers and jeers. Whether or not you agree with his means of protest, he reignited a significant conversation around racial equality and the role professional athletes play in raising awareness about injustice in society.

Through our work with athletes in nearly every professional league, we at the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE) have found that professional athletes have an unmatched ability to bring people together while forcing a spotlight onto some of our nation’s biggest problems.

Whether it’s calling for equal pay for equal work, advocating for criminal justice reform or attempting to bridge the racial divisions in America, educated and involved athletes have a critical role to play in shining a light on injustice and in shifting the conversation on larger social issues to create real positive change – even in the wake of horrific displays of bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism and violence such as those by white nationalists and neo-Nazis last weekend.

The fallout from what happened in Charlottesville is still unknown, but a number of athletes have begun to lead a conversation on what needs to happen next.

LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers earned more than 3 million likes in a series of tweets that called for the need to better educate our youth not to hate and not to judge based on race, religion or background. Malcolm Jenkins of the Philadelphia Eagles similarly encouraged people to continue resisting against violence and injustice, while Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks sat during the national anthem at Saturday’s preseason game against the Los Angeles Chargers and cited Charlottesville as a reason to “use my platform to be able to continuously speak on injustice.”

Athletes already have been taking tangible steps to advance these causes.

Jenkins and Anquan Boldin, now of the Buffalo Bills, have made two visits to Capitol Hill in the past 10 months, meeting directly with our country’s top legislators to advocate for criminal justice reform and the need to take concrete steps to improve relations between law enforcement and minority communities. After initial meetings in November, Boldin and Jenkins were joined by Johnson Bademosi of the Detroit Lions and retired player Dante Stallworth for a three-day visit to Washington in March to better understand the process of working with Congress and learn what they can do as athletes and community leaders to influence change.

Last month, Serena Williams wrote a powerful essay for Fortune to promote Black Women’s Equal Pay Day – acknowledging the seven additional months into 2017 that an African-American woman had to work to earn the same amount of money that a white male earned in 2016. Closing the gender pay gap is an issue that many activists and politicians have spoken about at length, but Williams brought a newfound attention to it. Her essay in Fortune was picked up by countless news outlets, including CBS, Forbes, CNN and the Huffington Post, giving the cause new life.

Players in the WNBA have been among the most socially active athletes in the country. Last season, even before Kaepernick began his much-publicized protests, players across the WNBA united to raise awareness for similar issues of racial injustices and the need for improved relations between law enforcement and minorities.

Players from the New York Liberty, Minnesota Lynx, Indiana Fever and Phoenix Mercury all took unified stands for these causes through on-court displays of solidarity and off-court interviews. While the league initially fined players for wearing non-sanctioned apparel during pregame warmups that expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement and honored the memory of the Dallas 5 – the five police officers who were gunned down in July 2016 during what was meant to be a peaceful protest – the WNBA ultimately embraced its players’ activism.

The league realized it was in its best interest to support these players and in turn showed support for its fan base by taking an interest in matters that affected their communities.

Retired WNBA player Swin Cash, who now works as director of franchise development for the Liberty, has been among those at the forefront of athlete activism.

As part of her efforts, this coming weekend, RISE is partnering with the Liberty to continue this important work. On Sunday, Aug. 20, we are helping to organize a Unity Game when the Liberty hosts the Lynx at Madison Square Garden. Among other activities that highlight the unity theme, the day will feature a pregame panel discussion with players, law enforcement officials and community leaders aimed at developing a solution-oriented agenda focused on creating positive change in the community.

What happened in Charlottesville showed us that we as a nation have a lot more work to do. Professional athletes can play a key role in leading the conversations and progress on these important issues.

We can expect more athletes to embrace roles as activists, and we should embrace them when they do.

Jocelyn Benson is CEO of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE).

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