The First Athletes to Speak Out Are the Bravest

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A fan holds up a pro-Palestine sign during a January 15 game between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Golden State Warriors.  (Justin Ford / Getty Images)

To encourage others, we must protect and celebrate the first wave of signatories to the Athletes for Ceasefire statement.

Several hundred members of the sports world signed up for the new organization Athletes for Ceasefire. Some are well-known, like retired NFL receiver Kenny Stills (who is an organizer of the project), 1968 Olympian John Carlos, WNBA stalwart Layshia Clarendon, and retired NBA player Etan Thomas. Others are Olympic-level runners, cricketeers, and soccer players: people whom the typical American sports fan may not know. What unites them is the belief that the total war on the civilian population of Gaza must end and that athletes can play a role in amplifying this message. Their statement reads in part:

In the wake of an unfolding genocide in Gaza, as described by countless legal scholars, human rights experts and international organizations across the world. We, as athletes, recognize our moral responsibility to utilize our platform for a higher purpose: to save human lives and to raise awareness about this ongoing tragedy. We acknowledge the right of the Palestinian people to live in peace and security. As professional athletes, we underscore our shared humanity, and advocate for a path that respects all human life, regardless of religion or ethnic background. In signing this letter, we continue a long legacy of athletes speaking up for the human rights of all people, such as Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith who raised their fists at the 1968 games in part to demand that apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia be held to account. We stand in the proud tradition of “The Greatest” Muhammad Ali who stood for Palestinian freedom throughout his life both in word and deed. WE STAND ON THE SHOULDERS OF THESE GIANTS IN OUR EFFORTS TO KEEP THIS TRADITION OF ATHLETE OF CONSCIENCE ALIVE.

As impressive as the Athletes for Ceasefire statement is, there is a question about why the number of signatures is in the hundreds, and not in the thousands or tens of thousands. What it comes down to, to paraphrase Daniel Denvir, host of the podcast The Dig, is that while criticism of Israel has never been higher, the punishment for speaking out has also never been greater. In other words, according to someone who has been privy to the internal organizing and launch of this organization, the deterrent is fear.

An NBA All-Star said that he wanted to sign, but he received such intense behind-the-scenes pressure that he felt to do so would risk his standing with his team and that his story would overwhelm the message of AFC. Another NBA All-Star said he believes in the cause but feared being labeled an “antisemite.” A coach with a sterling reputation said grudgingly that he wanted to but the level of “distraction” that his signing on would create was simply not worth it. One football player with whom I spoke is near the end of his career and thought that joining AFC would push him out of the league sooner rather than later. None of these athletes would go on the record with me other than to allow their reasons to be known.

We can draw three conclusions from this. The first is that there is far more oxygen outside the United States to speak out against the atrocities in Gaza. The United States has a bipartisan commitment to fund these horrors, which means there is no political cover for standing against an increasingly authoritarian political agenda. The second is that credit must be given to those who have courageously stepped forward and put their names out there as standing against what they are calling—and it is getting impossible to avoid this word—a genocide. The sports unions have not even hinted, unlike other unions, that they would draft their own cease-fire resolutions, which would provide some much-needed political cover.

The third reason is the most critical: In the last four years, the politics of the sports world have shifted dramatically. In 2020, after the police killing of George Floyd, people like NFL and NBA commissioners Roger Goodell and Adam Silver publicly praised players for being outspoken on the issues of racial inequity and police violence. They said that they wanted athletes in their leagues to be seen as three-dimensional people with the capacity to raise attention to social ills and not merely entertain: to do more than just “shut up and dribble.” Those sentiments now look dated and opportunistic. The only vestiges in the professional sports leagues from those days—just four years ago!—are empty gestures like the NFL’s putting the words “End Racism” behind end zones—some which also contain racist logos of Native American mascots.

The backlash we have seen in the broader US society on a host of issues and the McCarthyite attacks on people standing up for a cease-fire are now baked into the politics of sports. The period from about 2012 to 2020 when athletes talked about issues as in no era since the 1970s is over. In 2024, athletes need to be courageous to speak out, because they could be punished. The moment recalls a quote often attributed to Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg: “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” Only the athletes who want to speak truths beyond what their corporate and institutional minders want them to say will feel the strain of their chains.

Few people in any field have the courage to be the first wave and credit is due everyone involved in Athletes for Ceasefire, particularly organizer Kenny Stills. The only way to do this painstaking work of organizing is to do it one athlete at a time. The greater the numbers, the more people will be unafraid to speak.

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