Athlete Activists Respond to the Coronavirus Pandemic

I often use this space to write about the “activist athlete”—jocks who use their hyper-exalted, brought-to-you-by-Nike platforms to try and say or do something about the problems plaguing our world. Of course, right now the dominant, all-encompassing problem plaguing our world is, well, a plague.

Our games have shut down. Twenty-four-hour sports networks are contorting themselves into pretzels trying to fill the hours. Using home studios and without the help of makeup artists, these mottled souls are just days away from having to turn to debates about whether Pete Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame. As for the athletes, they—like so many of us—have cocooned with their families to wait Covid-19 out, hoping against hope that they will be able to go back to work.

In this utterly unprecedented context, it raises the question of what a socially conscious athlete can do. Thank the heavens, we have some quite inspiring, and at times heartbreaking, examples from just this past week.

One action is the most basic and human of all: that of transparency. We learned on Friday that ESPN basketball announcer Doris Burke has contracted the virus. Burke wants to be open about what she is going through as a way to speak to others about the importance of health, safety, and social distancing. Karl Anthony-Towns, the all-star center for the Minnesota Timberwolves has taken to Instagram to speak about how both his parents are now suffering through the virus. His mother, Jacqueline Cruz, is in a medically induced coma and has been put on a respirator. Through tears, he is trying to warn people to take this as seriously as possible. Rudy Gobert, called the “patient zero” of the NBA, has been open about his symptoms and recovery. These are difficult stories, but they serve the mighty purpose of letting people know that anyone can contract the virus and when we forego social distancing, the risk is real.

Another way to raise awareness was seen on Thursday and pulled off by the Golden State Warriors MVP guard Steph Curry. He held an instagram live chat with Dr. Anthony Fauci and actually was able to ask many of the commonsense questions that never seem to be answered in Trump’s daily media rallies because the Orange One takes up so much space with his blithering ignorance. Curry asked about comparing the flu to the novel coronavirus, whether warm weather would help mitigate its affects, and more. Over 50,000 people tuned in to see it live. It was an admirable use of Curry’s cultural capital to raise not only awareness but also intelligence.

Perhaps the most significant way an athlete can make a difference in people’s lives right now is if they leverage their fame to shame, as in shame the billionaire class to do the right thing and support their workers through these hardships. We saw this earlier in the week when Philadelphia 76ers star center Joel Embiid pledged $500,000 for Covid-19 relief in local communities, as well as helping those Sixers employees who would have been hurt. This pushed, within only an hour, the 76ers’ ownership group to backtrack on their intention to reduce at-will employees’ pay by 20 percent from April 15 through the end of June. Embiid literally stopped a pay cut for hundreds of people through using fame to shame. We have seen other players like 19-year-old Zion Williamson leverage their fame to shame by donating their own money to pay stadium workers and then force ownership to scurry up and pledge to do the same. Outside the world of sports, one would be hard-pressed to find any members of the billionaire class stepping up to fight this virus. Far from giving, they are taking, in the form of a $500 billion slush fund courtesy of Mitch McConnell. But in sports, they have actually ponied up some money, and without players pushing them to do so, it is difficult to imagine that they would have done anything other than cut back.

The examples above should give folks a sense of hope about what athletes can do amid the coronavirus crisis. They can raise awareness, be open with their struggles, use social media, or push their billionaire bosses to actually do something. It might not seem like much, but at a moment where helplessness and fear seem to be the dominant and guiding emotions, there is definitely a sense of hope that comes with seeing players with a conscience exercise that conscience in the most difficult of circumstances.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com