“Stick to sports” is usually a phrase people use to try to shut up athletes when they use their platforms to take stances those people disagree with. In other cases, “stick to sports” is invoked as a Fifth Amendment-like protection for athletes who want to stay out of social debates for fear of the backlash that comes with having an opinion. Then this past week, it got much harder to “stick to sports” after the Donald Trump was unable to stick to politics and unleashed a litany of attacks on professional football and basketball players for protesting during the national anthem or rejecting his invitation to the White House.
In response to Trump’s comments, many prominent figures in the sports world, some unprompted and others coerced, have publicly offered their two-cents via a statement or demonstration. This includes local basketball stars John Wall and Bradley Beal, who at Wizards Media Day on Monday weighed in on the controversy.
But should DC’s All-Star backcourt involve themselves in political and social movements, or do we Wizards fans want them to just stick to sports?
Lebron James and his band of Team USA teammates set the mark for professional athletes speaking out on social injustices. They’ve put forth an example that obliges the most successful athletes to use the money and fame they’ve gained from sports to stand up for the people from the communities they were raised in.
John and Brad feel that as the established superstars and leaders of this franchise, the call to be vocal on important social issues falls to them. And rightfully so. They’ve been blessed with a combination of great talents and opportunities that has afforded them lives of luxury and a platform for social impact that 99.9% of the population could only dream about. It’s only right that they use those resources to pay it forward and make a positive impact for the less privileged. John even called on NFL stars Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers to use their celebrity to speak out against Trump’s comments.
It’s clear that both Wizards stars subscribe to the philosophy that “with great power, comes great responsibility.” They’re right in that regard. However, their responsibility doesn’t end at expressing their displeasure with tweets from the President. If Wall and Beal want to venture out of their lanes to take on the burden of social and political activism, then they have a duty to the team and it’s fans to be thoughtful, educated, invested, and unified in the issues they speak out about.
I’d hope that most Wizards fans, whether or not they agree with the positions John and Brad might take publicly, would respect the young men’s right to express their opinions. That’s probably a naive hope in our politically charged times, and I’ve already seen Twitter commenters blindly bashing the stars for the views they shared Monday.
John and Brad can wield more respect and credibility, however, if they stay authentic and stand up for only causes that they are truly passionate about and emotionally invested in. There’s a new outrage over politically-incorrectness every week, and the Wizkid’s voices will get old quick if they feel they have to weigh in on each one of these uproars. But if they choose to speak up about topics that truly affect them and the people they love, well then, who can fault them?
Monday’s comments were a mixed bag in this regard. It was obvious that both John and Brad are passionate about what is going on in the country, but it wasn’t clear which issue they were taking a stand on. Were they mad about social injustice, the Hurricane Maria response, or Trump’s attacks on professional athletes? Being authentic also means being focused.
What’s Your Message?
Another responsibility that falls to Wall and Beal is that they need to have an actionable message. Okay you’re upset, but what do you want done about it? What do you want us to do about it? What are you yourself going to do about it? Without a clear message, you’re just another angry talking head, and those come a dime three dozen.
John did a good job of conveying a message when he encouraged school students to stay positive in the wake of the Charlottesville, and again when he called on top NFL quarterbacks to be leaders in the anthem protests. But John and Brad missed the mark here at their presser on Monday. What purpose does it serve to tell the world the President is a clown, or that he does not carry your respect? What are the kids watching your interview supposed to do with that? Donald Trump’s value proposition is seemingly his ability to divide people, even on issues that don’t normally incite debate. It’s easy to fall into his trap of arguing and name calling, but that only exacerbates the national divisions you intended to speak out against.
Our local NBA stars have an unparalleled platform for reaching young minds and being a positive influence, so they should use it wisely. They need to rise above the pettiness and spread a word that will actually help people.
Do Your Homework
Beal and Wall each only went to college for one year, but they’re two bright guys. That’s good, because a top pre-requisite for athletes venturing outside of sports is that they’re educated on the topics they engage on. If you’re going to raise awareness or advocate for your fans to do something, you better know what you’re talking about.
Fortunately, both John and Brad appear to be well informed on current events thus far. They’ve clearly been following the news closely and talking to affected people. Thus they were able to speak intelligently on the topics at hand. Let’s just hope they continue to do so. It will get harder to stay educated as the season kicks into gear, but it’s imperative if they want to establish themselves as social leaders.
A Unified Front
An important thing for John and Brad to remember is that wherever they go, they’re not representing only their own views, but also the Washington Wizards as a team and an organization. So in this regard, they have to make sure that everyone is on board with their activism, lest their comments about non-basketball issues lead to problems in the locker room.
This past weekend in the NFL, we saw that more important than whether a team stood or kneeled for the anthem, was whether they did it together. In London some Ravens players kneeled while others didn’t and the coach said the only time he’d kneel was to say a prayer. They got historically pummeled by the Jaguars. The Steelers opted to stay in the locker room for the anthem, but one player bucked the team and came out alone to hear it. The team lost to a Bears team they were supposed to beat easily. Meanwhile, the Cowboys kneeled in unison as a team before the anthem and locked arms during it. They walked over the Cardinals on the road. Team unity matters.
John and Brad are NBA veterans now and they’ve earned the respect of their locker room. I wouldn’t anticipate much turmoil coming from their fielding questions on politics. Still, they have to be sure that whatever they do or say, that they do it together and that they have the full support of the rest of the squad.
Do Your Job First
John Wall and Bradley Beal’s status as star basketball players may allow them to be advocates for social change, but at the end of the day they’re basketball players first. Therefore, basketball has to remain their primary focus. Regardless of how authentic, educated, and unified the pair are in their activism, Wizards fans are going to be upset with them if their play slips and they start losing games. Conversely, if they’re killing it on the court, they will have far fewer critics of their not sticking to sports, not to mention more media attention and a bigger reach.
That means don’t let your social commentary become a distraction. Make a statement when the time is appropriate, but spend most of your time playing basketball and talking about basketball. Then, when you win D.C. a championship, you’ll have our full attention when you want to urge us to take action on a divisive issue.
As Wizards fans, we should be proud of John Wall and Bradley Beal’s evolution from young pups into bonafide stars eager and willing to make a social impact. We saw Monday that they’re ready to take on the challenge of being social leaders, and that they have big hearts that look out for others. Still, while their comments came from the best of intentions, they showed that John and Brad still have work to do in this new role they’re assuming. They need to be strategic, deliberate, and well-researched with the topics they speak out about. If they do this, then we fans will accept their social commentary and their role in offering it. If they don’t, then yes, they should probably stick to sports.