With celebrities of all disciplines holding a louder megaphone than ever, many are using their platform to call out injustices and voice their opinions despite teams of trolls waiting in the shadows to tear each word apart letter by letter. However, one particular sector of celebrity has come under fire in more demeaning ways than most in recent months, Athletes. Unlike those who are famous for talking to us through a camera like actors & musicians, athletes have been the recipients of more malicious mentions revolving around their supposed “uneducated” or “unjustified” positions on issues as diverse as racial discrimination, voter suppression, vaccinations and global warming. This phenomenon has become known as the ‘Shut Up & Dribble’ discussion, first coined during the backlash directed at NBA basketball players following their decision to protest police brutality during the George Floyd Protests back in 2020.
It is not exactly breaking news to say that social media is more often than not a cesspit of the worst opinions humanity has to offer. Countless cultural commentators and self-appointed experts too often rise from the woodwork at the first sign of conflict or the briefest window to belittle those that stray, even momentarily, from the realm they traditionally dwell in. Our societal affinity to compartmentalise complex individuals into neat little boxes based on their chosen career, nationality, family background or political persuasion has resulted in a derogatory discourse online as activism becomes entangled in the algorithm.
The terrors of trolling are a top-down occurrence that usually delivers the greatest criticism to the brightest star. In the case of the NBA, that star is Lebron James. In 2020, Lebron became the figurehead of the “Shut Up & Dribble” mobs mockery after calling out FOX News host Laura Ingraham for comments she made during a segment called “Jocks on Politics”. During a moment of cringe-worthy irony, Ingraham said NFL player Drew Brees was justified to criticise fellow Quarterback Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee during the national anthem stating he is “allowed to have an opinion”, just moments after telling Lebron and fellow NBA superstar Kevin Durant to just “shut up and dribble”.
Lebron, flanked by an army of activist athletes, responded to Ingraham, stating that “We will never shut up & dribble”. In the following months, Lebron and Kevin Durant coproduced a three-part documentary titled ‘Shut Up And Dribble’ that examines the changing role of athletes in activism and the newfound pressure to use their global reach and worldwide wingspan to effect change.
Ultimately, the case of Kaepernick and Laura Ingrahm’s defence of white quarterback Drew Bees is a perfect example of the racially charged undercurrent that runs beneath this whole “Shut Up & Dribble” debate. Like many other pop-culture moments, “Shut Up & Dribble” has become a de facto war cry for alt-right accounts and TV pundits looking to grab a quick headline – even being used as recently as last week by US TV personality Chris Russo.
Additionally, the same derogatory rhetoric reared its ugly head this week when Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr gave an emotional outcry following a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde Texas, moments before his team were due to play in the Western Conference Finals. Coach Kerr is a perfect example of the more nuanced complexity of sports stars and the value of their opinion on issues unconnected to sports, particularly as he lost his father to gun violence. If he was not welcomed to share his perspective on such a pivotal issue because of his occupation the world would have missed out on a mind-altering moment of raw expression from a man more educated on the subject than most.
Sports stars in activism are by no means a new trend and can be traced back to Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Althea Gibson. However, in today’s sporting climate, It’s Colin Kaepernick, Bubba Wallace, Naomi Osaka, Lebron James and Marcus Rashford that find themselves at the epicentre of this new wave of anti-activist athlete critique. There are countless examples of athletes impacting real difference on numerous issues, from NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s stand for civil rights to the England Football team’s more recent turmoils with racial & online abuse. We depend on cultural characters like athletes and musicians to change contemporary perspectives as we tend to take in what they say more than the politicians we distrust. If you asked 100 kids who their hero is, It’s doubtful whether any would say Joe Biden, but countless would say Lebron James.
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