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Olympic Athletes and Social Issues

Monday, Jun. 11, 2012

 

As the sporting world turns its eyes to London in anticipation of the 2012 Olympic Games, I find myself thinking about some of the wonderful moments in Olympic history. Whether it was Usain Bolt’s shattering the 100 and 200-meter world records, Michael Phelps’ winning 8 gold medals, or the 1992 “Dream Team” making it look as if their opponents had never heard of the word basketball before, Olympians have always captivated us with their amazing talents.

And then I started thinking about other lasting Olympic memories; such as the 1968 summer games in Mexico City. Following their 1st and 3rd place finishes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the podium while the National Anthem rang in the background. The gesture was in support of the Black Power movement, as well as an act of solidarity for all African Americans suffering through the racism of the civil rights era.

 What’s so fascinating about the example of Smith and Carlos is that the moment on the podium has become more meaningful than their race. They chose to use their performance as a platform to challenge the way African Americans were being treated in the United States. They could have just as easily stood on that podium in silence as they received their medals – but they didn’t.   A similar stand against racial injustice took place not too long ago – in the 2000 Sydney Games in Australia. Cathy Freeman was one of only 11 Aboriginal natives out of 628 athletes on the Australian team. She was “the human symbol of a country's hope of creating new racial harmony.” After lighting the torch to begin the games, Freeman went on to win the gold in the 400 meters. After the race was over, she took a victory lap while carrying both the Australian, and Aboriginal flags.  I respect and honor these athletes not just for their athletic achievement, but also for their willingness to make their performance mean something more to their communities. Which, oddly enough, got me thinking about professional golfers.  Every year, the best male golfers around the world gather in Augusta, Georgia to play in the Masters – one of the most important tournaments of the year. I stress the word “male” because no women are allowed to be members at Augusta National, the golf course that plays host to the Masters. Despite this blatant display of discrimination, no professional golfer, past or present, has yet to speak up about the issue. It is never really paid attention to, and the only reason that it has come up recently is because of a tradition where the sponsoring companies CEO are extended membership at Augusta National. IBM is a large sponsor of the Masters, and it just so happens that this past year they named Ginni Rometty as its CEO. Due to the policy, she was not extended an invitation to become a member.  

I realize that comparing Tommy Smith and John Carlos speaking out about racism in the United States with golfers unwilling to speak out about gender discrimination at a private golf course may be a bit petty. The two issues are not on the same level. That’s not to say that women being excluded from the Masters isn’t an important issue. In fact, it is such an obvious and blatant display of injustice that it makes you shake your head and wonder how something like that is even allowed to go on.   

But, it still leaves me questioning the lack of professional golfers who will stand up and speak out against the policy. Have they done something wrong? Do they have a responsibility to speak out? Should they be held accountable for remaining quiet? These questions don’t have easy answers. In your gut you feel like their silence is wrong and they should be held accountable for. But, then I start thinking about what that implies about an athlete’s behavior. There are countless injustices in the world. Do athlete’s need to speak out against all of them? Do they need to take a stand on some issue? Is their continued silence or lack of voice a moral failing? I don’t feel comfortable saying yes to any of those questions because I don’t see how we can reasonably expect that of an athlete. That’s a personal decision, and some people, be they athletes or not, choose to keep personal feelings private and I respect that.  

And I return again to Smith and Carlos and I find what they did to be honorable and praiseworthy. They acted virtuously, and provided a strong moral example. Ultimately, what they did was right. But somehow, if they hadn’t done it, it would not have been wrong.  

And then the ultimate question that I realized needed answering revealed itself: Can doing something be the right thing to do, without it being the necessary thing to do? Basically, if Carlos and Smith hadn’t demonstrated in those summer games, would we consider that to be a moral failure?  

That's when I was introduced to an idea by Dr. David DeCosse in the Ethics Center that helped me reconcile my thinking on this issue of the ethical responsibility of athletes. He told me about supererogation. It is a theory of Catholic moral theology that suggests certain actions are praiseworthy, but that not doing those same actions is also not blameworthy. It is an interesting description of ethics, but I think it describes the athlete’s situation well.     

Ultimately, sports are a profession, and athletes are workers. We don’t demand employees at work, no matter how well known they are, to speak out about social issues or ethics. Granted, athletes are considerably more famous than your average worker. That’s because our society privileges its athletes. We take pride in their success and their failures. Most of all, we respect and honor their greatness. For the most part, that greatness is displayed on the field. But, sometimes an athlete does something to elevate their athletic achievement.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos broadened the focus of that Olympic race. They used their athletic performance to speak to a larger social issue. They acted selflessly, deflecting the attention from their success and on to the bigger picture of racial intolerance. They, and Cathy Freeman are virtuous, and courageous athletes. Our world would be far better off with more like them.       

 

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