Why the sports world takes stances on issues like gun control but not others

Why the sports world takes stances on issues like gun control but not others

In the wake of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two teachers dead, athletes and sports franchises were among those appealing for thoughts and prayers for those impacted, but often they went further, pushing people in power to undertake the changes necessary to curb U.S. gun violence.

The New York Yankees tweeted out a lengthy thread about guns, while superstar players including shooting guard LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes advocated for measures to stop gun violence, and Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr issued a plea that went viral in which he asked with desperation in his voice, “When are we going to do something?”

Dozens of other athletes and sports teams have gone on the record about the Texas school shooting, prompting the question, why do some social and political issues more than others elicit such public position taking?

Martin Conway, a professor in Georgetown’s sports management program, told MarketWatch that franchises and athletes, particularly franchises, are more apt to comment on “issues where there is a little bit more consensus.”

“And if you look at national polling on things like gun violence and ‘common sense’ gun laws, background checks, etc., those are almost overwhelming,” Conway said. “Those [are] in the 70- or 80-plus percentage [range] when individuals are polled on that, so from an organization perspective that’s a little bit easier to get behind.”

So it makes sense that fans will see comments from athletes or teams on issues that poll well, like gun control or social justice, as opposed to some more complex or divisive issues.

Mental-health awareness and suicide prevention also fall into the category of causes with greater consensus, Conway observed, making advocacy in those areas less risky for image-conscious sports-world figures and organizations.

In the wake of the tragedy at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School, the NBA, as was the case two summers ago when the death of George Floyd prompted a national outcry for racial justice and policing reform, has been near the forefront. The Boston Celtics directly urged fans to call members of the U.S. Senate to demand “common sense gun laws.”

“People are looking for their organizations and their athletes frankly to take a position,” Conway said. “Some don’t want to see it, some say keep the politics out of sports, but I think increasingly people who are spending money with brands including sports are looking for their brands and their teams and organizations to tell us where [they] are, take certain positions on things.”

According to an ESPN survey in 2021, 71% of sports fans support athletes speaking out on the causes they care about, but only 51% of fans said they support such messaging during sporting events, versus the 49% saying they would prefer advocacy efforts take place off the field or court. When then–San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem and when NBA players had Black Lives Matter and other statements adorn their jerseys, a line, to some observers, was crossed.

As Kaepernick would attest, taking stands can have major ramifications for athletes — all the more so in areas where understanding and consensus aren’t high.

For example, one tweet by then–Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey that supported Hong Kong protesters against China in 2019 created a massive problem for the NBA and its $5 billion business relationship with China, including television rights.

NBA games in China, some of which were regularly aired on state-run TV, were abruptly taken off the air for three years, according to ESPN. Game telecasts only just resumed again in China this May.

On the other side of that equation, Lakers star James was among those drawing criticism for seemingly coming to China’s defense. James, who has a lucrative endorsement deal with global footwear giant Nike
and a massive following in China, accused Morey of being “misinformed” about the ramifications of his tweet and “not educated about the situation.”

James and the NBA were targeted for criticism by Democratic and Republican senators alike, as well as some of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, for appearing more concerned about their financial interests than human rights. The U.S. government has pointedly called out some Chinese human-rights abuses, notably characterizing actions taken against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang as genocidal.

Georgetown’s Conway observed that athletes and sports organizations can expect to enjoy more support from the public when a more direct relationship between the messenger and the issue is apparent. One example: the treatment by law enforcement of Black people and members of other minority groups.

“So many NBA players talk about the fact that they’ve been stopped many times in their lives [by police officers] and been asked about the cars they’re driving — different things like that,” Conway said. “They have a real, lived experience.”

Some 73% of NBA players are Black, according to Statista, and other sports leagues including the NFL and the MLB are also heavily nonwhite.