Athletes have the ability to drive social change: Howard


It’s a rare sight to behold, in fact prior to May 25, one could never imagine what an interaction between a Sindh Police Women’s Protection Cell sub-inspector would look like, if she asked a question to a former NBA player.

It was the live demonstration of how athletes have reach and sport can transcend mere entertainment to a greater tool for social change.

The conversation was about social justice and Rukhsana Mangi asked former NBA player and ESPN commentator, who is also part of sports diplomacy, Stephen Howard, if there is a global platform where athletes unite and amplify their voices on social justice.

The answer was no, but the idea was a good one because Howard would go on to recognize that there is no such global platform outside of social media and the internet.

The US Consulate in Pakistan hosted the Sports Envoy Athletes and Social Justice, an online event on May 25 that brought together Stephen Howard, who played for Seattle Supersonics, Utah Jazz, while pursuing his professional career in different countries including the Lebanon, Turkey and the Middle East, to see how athletes can advance the social justice movement and how in the current climate it is easier and almost imperative for sports personalities to actively participate in social movements and equity in the United States and around the world.

The event saw opening remarks from Consul General Mark Stroh. “You might be wondering what sport has to do with social justice. I think sports personalities have a huge influence. Sports often provide a familiar context from which to address difficult questions of social justice. Athletes in the United States have long played a central role in movements for social justice and equity,” he introduced Howard and the purpose of the event.

Meanwhile, the Sports and Extracurricular Division in charge of the Higher Education Commission and the Director of Karachi Regional Center, Pakistan University Sports Council Secretary Jawaid Ali Memon shed light on the fact that athletes play an important role in raising awareness of local key issues such as Wasim Akram and Jehangir. Khan among others.

He shared the statistic of increasing female participation in sports. “We organize sports for women and there is an increase now. There are 35 women’s championships and we provide funding opportunities for them to compete. Now women are showing up in all sports.

Howard gave a detailed and bold presentation on the history of slavery from 1775 to modern times when the civil rights movement and the social justice movement had taken place and African Americans were fighting for their rights fundamentals.

“Athletes have the ability, through their platforms, to impact generations they would never have personal contact with, enabling them to inspire them and create better communities. Athletes have an important platform through which they have championed groundbreaking causes throughout American history. Athletes can create economic and educational opportunities that otherwise would not have been present without that particular athlete leveraging awareness, speaking out about the things they are passionate about,” Howard said in his presentation.

He highlighted how sports personalities from African American communities have amplified the cause of justice and stood up against the odds, adding more meaning to sports and cultural and social change.

He covered many topics including the transatlantic slave trade, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, segregation in schools, Malcolm X, little Rock Nine, Philip Randolph. He also discussed icons like Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball sports, using his influence for the civil rights movement. Bill Russell and Muhammad Ali involved in civil rights. Tommie Smith and John Carlos Olympics track athletes who support the civil rights movement and issues. Wilma Rudolph now has basketball legends like Lebron James, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan with Colin Kaepernick taking the knee, while Serena Williams and Venus Williams lead the way and the conversation on racism, gender pay gap sexes. Simone Biles talks about mental health while Formula 1 racer Lewis Hamilton speaks out on social issues. He also mentioned the United States women’s national soccer team.

Asked by The Express Tribune whether athletes face a backlash from sponsors if they voice their views on social injustices, Howard explained: “In this time there have been various movements over the five to last seven years. The threat of losing sponsorships or losing your job is far less than it used to be and I think that’s why more players are willing to take up social justice causes, depending on the kind of sponsorships you have as long as they are seen by people in a positive light. But I think sponsors are more willing to support social justice causes because they know the impact it has on the buying public. Also, when you speak up for social justice causes, there’s always a chance that there will be backlash, but I think a big, big majority of people recognize and respect players who speak up for a problem. That’s why you have brands like Nike supporting their athletes, supporting their causes and I think it’s in everyone’s interest.

He touched on Nike’s hijab line for Muslim women, while explaining that in the age of social media, it’s easier for athletes to raise their voices against injustice.

Giving the example of Jordan versus Lebron James, as the latter would speak out on issues regardless of the backlash, as Jordan was criticized until 2016 when he finally started speaking out about the Black Lives Matters movement and other social causes. He added that silence can be seen as consent to oppression.

When asked by the Express Tribune who his heroes are, he named James and Jordan as his heroes while Muhammad Ali as his absolute role model to not only become the heavyweight champion and market himself but to tell the world who he was and manifesting it with his social justice and humanitarian efforts.

Listeners to the event included squash player and activist Noorena Shams, footballer and national coach Rukhsar Rashid and many other members of the Special Olympics Committee.

Naomi C. Amerson