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Social Justice

Athletes and the quest for balance on social media

More platforms for expression means a greater responsibility for all athletes

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Civil conversations facilitate true change in society. Without them, we simply become more polarized as a country as our interactions shift to online platforms, which rarely lead to productive results.

Recently, a series of discussions among students, former athletes and journalists at the University of Florida embodied the ideal of civil conversations during the town hall discussion hosted by The Undefeated and the university as part of the 2019 UF Wasdin Speaker Series.

One central theme emerged during that discussion: the level of influence professional athletes and organizations can wield. It is a common sentiment that there is power in individual athletes having the ability to make change if they just say something using the resources at their disposal.

However, in this age of perceived athlete empowerment, how athletes use that influence is limited. To truly be able to express opinions without fear of career-threatening repercussions, the athlete has to be at an untouchable status. The average athlete is silenced.

The 53rd man on an NFL roster may fear being released if he speaks out against the national anthem policy he is encouraged to follow.

But someone like the NBA’s LeBron James can openly support a presidential candidate (Hillary Clinton in 2016) and call President Donald Trump a “bum” on Twitter (in 2017).

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady once had a hat bearing Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” in his locker early in Trump’s presidential campaign.

It’s fine for Brady and James to take political sides, as they have reached that untouchable status and would never be cut by their respective teams for those actions.

Those with immense talent and cachet in their sports are able to truly reap the rewards of this era that provide athletes more platforms to influence change than ever before. Professional athletes can obtain millions of followers across different mediums and reach people in a way that was not possible when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Muhammad Ali were at the height of their social activism.

However, even with the proliferation of social media, there are athletes who are limited in what they can say.

Athletes get this false sense of elevated influence when their followers rise dramatically. A blue check mark on Twitter or thousands of likes on a post doesn’t translate to more freedom to speak out on hot-button issues; it actually can be restrictive.

With the rise of social media usage among athletes, teams are increasingly encouraging their players to be mindful of what they post on their accounts. One person who is helping athletes be proactive is former NFL tight end Marcus Pollard.

Pollard, now the director of player development and youth football with the Jacksonville Jaguars, said during the town hall that part of his job is to advise players about posting on certain topics.

“They want to voice their opinions,” said Pollard. “But as a professional athlete, in my case, sometimes it’s better not to post.”

And it’s not just the teams that have concerns about what players post. There have been countless examples of social media users unearthing old tweets that threaten the reputation of athletes.

Arizona Cardinals rookie quarterback Kyler Murray apologized for anti-gay tweets that surfaced the day he won the Heisman Trophy in 2018.

San Francisco 49ers pass rusher Nick Bosa deleted tweets from 2016 that called Colin Kaepernick “a clown” before getting drafted earlier this year.

Both of these cases, and others, demonstrate that players have to be extra cautious, even before they have reached fame and stardom.

What does all of this mean for the next generation of athletes? In the world of college recruiting, cases have popped up where the use of social media damages high school prospects. There have been instances where recruits posted or retweeted content with inappropriate language or made a statement that stirred up some controversy.

A recent example was in September 2017. While on his official visit to Ohio State, former Buckeyes commit and consensus five-star prospect Micah Parsons drew criticism for a tweet he sent out after the team’s 16-31 loss at home against Oklahoma.

Parsons, who ended up signing with Penn State, tweeted a reporter who said OSU head coach Urban Meyer would not bench quarterback J.T. Barrett. In his response, Parsons said he would make a change to backup signal-caller Dwayne Haskins Jr.

This led to questions about whether it was correct for a recruit to make such a statement about his future team, with Parsons apologizing on Twitter the next day.

Young athletes’ relationship with social media is an ongoing battle in all sports, not just basketball and football.

Grant Holloway, who is the 2019 IAAF World Athletics champion in the 110-meter hurdles, has recognized the potential social media pitfalls.

During the Generation Next roundtable discussion at the town hall, Holloway said he prefers to connect with people in a traditional face-to-face manner.

“It’s been known, and I’ve told mostly a good amount of my friends, that I really don’t run my social media,” Holloway said. “I think social media, it can be interpreted in different ways … I try to stay away from it just because it has a negative connotation sometimes.”

For an athlete at any level to have the true freedom to speak, there has to be a fundamental shift in people’s perceptions of those who earn a living playing sports.

Instead of viewing them as immensely talented athletes unable to speak on topics beyond sports, everyone should be seen as human first.

Instead of immediately attacking an opposing view, listen or respectfully disagree.

If freedom to speak on pertinent issues is only afforded to a select few, then we are contradicting the democratic principles upon which this country was founded on. Fostering a diverse community allows us to learn about problems we are not personally experiencing and gain different perspectives.

This will facilitate true change in society.

Joseph Hastings is a senior journalism student at the University of Florida. His love for the Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Lakers has caused him consistent misery for a majority of the decade.