For fans, it can be difficult to remember that their favorite athletes are more than just athletes. It is easily forgotten that they have thoughts, opinions, and feelings, often reflecting society’s larger issues. With the backlash that often occurs when athletes do choose to take a public stance on issues, it is not surprising that many of them prefer to remain publicly neutral on controversial topics.
In our current reality of extreme controversy surrounding our president, sexuality and human rights, foreign relations, and racial tension, however, many athletes are choosing to publicize their beliefs, regardless of expected retaliation.
This can be uncomfortable for some fans—if your favorite athlete openly admits to an opinion different than yours, can you overcome the cognitive dissonance and continue to support them? Or does saying you’re a Tom Brady fan now have political implications?
Athletes should not let fear of losing fans dissuade them from taking public stances on topics they feel strongly about. Yet they also should not be coerced into publicizing premature opinions on issues they do not feel prepared to represent.
A prominent example of this notion is Michael Bennett, who recently backed out of a trip to Israel with other NFL players. After discovering that the Israeli government intended to send the players back to the U.S. as “influencers” for the good-will of the country, Bennett decided that he was not comfortable with the visit.
After publishing a letter reflecting on why he would not be attending this particular trip (but plans to go in the future), several other players backed out of the trip as well. It became evident that many of the other players did not recognize the suspected intent of the trip, and upon learning that their celebrity was potentially intended to be used as a platform for public Israeli support, they felt uncomfortable.
While Bennett potentially criticized the trip’s intentions more than necessary, his response raises an important question regarding influencing athletes, or celebrities in general, to take a stance on controversial topics.
It is entirely possible that had Bennett traveled to Israel with purely exploratory intent, he would have become an advocate for the “good-will” of the country on his own accord. But integrity must be questioned, regardless of the cause, if celebrities are intentionally targeted and given incomplete information in an attempt to cause them to take a stance on issues they otherwise may not.
Ultimately, athletes should be held to no more or less responsibility than others in the public eye in terms of becoming activists. And when they do choose to take a stance, it should be on issues they are passionate about, prepared to defend, and understanding of the potential consequences of.