Activism’s arrival in sports is not new, of course. From baseball’s Robinson to boxing’s Muhammad Ali to football’s Colin Kaepernick to soccer’s Megan Rapinoe, athletes have long pressed social-justice causes important to them and their communities. But the breadth and the public nature of the efforts over the past year, as social justice protests swept the nation on the eve of a presidential election, have shown the willingness of leagues, teams and athletes to engage in debates and take positions they had often avoided.
Sometimes the shift was done reluctantly, the result of national politics or changing public opinion. Sometimes teams and leagues were prodded to act by their own players. But Friday showed once again that sports isn’t simply entertainment in a vacuum.
“Throughout the year, there’s been a lot of things going on not only with the pandemic but as a society,” Alex Cora, the Boston Red Sox Manager, told reporters on Friday. “They moved it for the right reasons.”
It was only five years ago that Kaepernick’s decision to quietly kneel during the national anthem to protest systemic racism and police brutality sparked stiff disapproval from some team owners and criticism from a strident part of the white fan base. But eventually, even N.F.L. owners like the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, who once ordered his players not to kneel during the national anthem, were joining them in the gesture on the sidelines.
And players, aware that their wealth and their stature gave them a valuable megaphone aided by social media, kept pressing. After Jacob Blake, a Black man, was left paralyzed by the police in Kenosha, Wis., the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take part in a playoff game in August in Orlando, Fla. Within hours, dozens of other teams in other leagues had joined the work stoppage. Within days, the basketball players emerged from a meeting with N.B.A. officials with new commitments that it would join their fight against social injustice.
Some players went beyond causes to overtly political acts like campaigning for specific candidates. In the W.N.B.A., players on the Atlanta Dream became so infuriated by the statements by the team’s co-owner, the Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler, about the Black Lives Matter movement that they actively campaigned for her opponent, Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, wearing T-shirts with his name onto the court. Loeffler lost the election, sweeping not just her opponent but also another Democrat running in the state to victory.