This weekend is the finale of the Showtime documentary series “Shut Up and Dribble,” which focuses on the intersectionality of sports and politics through the lens of the NBA, starting in the 1960s until the present day. In addition to being centered around basketball, the series touches on other sports and athletes with the story driven by the idea of the conscious athlete and the role athletes have in shaping the political environment. Despite the push to keep politics outside of sports, this documentary shows the clear need for conscious athletes. As sports are often so central to culture and function as an accessible medium for dialogue, conscious athletes can use their influence to take stands and bring attention to issues.
The series gets its title from the racist dismissiveness of Laura Ingraham, who told Lebron James to “shut up and dribble,” along with several other remarks after he spoke negatively about Donald Trump. The irony behind her remarks is that Lebron James, in addition to being one of the greatest athletes of this generation, is also one of the most important activists. James has been praised for the creation of the I Promise School for at-risk students; he himself described it as his “most important professional accomplishment.” His decision to ignore Ingraham has proved beneficial to himself and to his community, and this is definitely not the first time he has done more than just dribble.
James is not the only conscious athlete, however, whether it be within his sport or within his generation. Any discussion on conscious athleticism would be remiss without mentioning Colin Kaepernick. His decision to kneel during the national anthem has resulted in a protest lasting more than two years against this country’s history of racial injustice, a silent action with deafening consequences. But before there was Colin Kaepernick, there was Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a rising star on the NBA Denver Nuggets, who came under fire for similarly protesting the national anthem, describing the flag as a symbol of “oppression and racism.” Even before him, Muhammad Ali famously refused to serve in the Vietnam War, echoing a national resentment toward the war. Or Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving the famous black power salute at the 1968 Olympics, taking a clear stance for the whole world to see. Each of these men, through their decision to be conscious athletes, fundamentally shaped the course of history and left an impact beyond their athletic careers.
While their successes cannot be overstated, and most criticism can often be dismissed as reactionary and racist, there are some important asterisks when it comes to conscious athletes. The first is of a more concerned nature, regarding the lives the of individual conscious athletes. The documentary series makes a point about free agency, a relatively new concept in sports, and how for the first time players were literally given the agency to choose their own future. The creation of free agency was, by definition, a liberating act. With this in mind, by becoming a conscious athlete, players often lose their agency as an athlete and are stuck having to defend themselves and their positions. This is a lesson that has been learned by all men mentioned above, aside from Lebron James, each of whom has seen their athletic careers threatened after engaging in political action.
The other is of a more critical nature, concerning the efficacy of conscious athletes. As sports are so intertwined with capitalism, one is left wondering whether or not athletes can fundamentally change institutions and systems which they profit off and exist within. This is in line with the larger criticism of philanthropy, a frequent tactic of conscious athletes, as to whether or not it is an effective means of creating genuine and lasting social change. Regardless, a conscious sports culture will lead to a conscious society. Conscious athletes serve as an important bridge for people everywhere to come together and fight oppression. While the negative results of their activism may come at a great cost, the positive results will always outweigh.
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