Athletes Engaging in Activism: The Role of Perceived Racial Identity

** UPDATED **

Over the past two weeks, students, faculty, and student-athletes at the University of Missouri have engaged in various forms of protest and activism aimed at addressing systemic racism on the campus. This brought to light the ways in which athletes can use their influence to affect social change. While this was a more common occurrence several decades ago (for an overview, see Souled Out?), athletes today are comparatively more reticent to engage in such civil protest. 

Noting this trend, Michael Regan and I conducted a study to examine one possible reason for the hesitancy to engage in activism: backlash from key constituent groups.* We suspect that, particularly among professional athletes, the potential backlash from consumers might limit the extent to which athletes get involved in activism or forms of protest.

We also thought that two other factors might affect this relationship. First, among African American athletes, the higher their perceived racial identity, the less favorable consumers would view their activism. This thinking stems from prejudice-distribution theory, which suggests that Whites view minorities who strongly identify with their race as people who also challenge the existing social systems; thus, Whites have negative evaluations of those persons, especially when compared to people who do not strongly identify with their race. Second, we thought the type of activism might affect attributions. Someone who champions ending childhood obesity might be viewed more favorably than someone who speaks out against military engagements overseas. 

We tested these possibilities through an experiment. Participants read about Charles Smith, a fictitious track athlete who was being considered as a product endorser for New Balance shoes. We then included personality information New Balance had supposedly collected, as well as outside activities, all of which shaped Smith's supposed racial identity and type of activism. 

We found that the perceived trustworthiness of the athlete depended on both the racial identity and the type of activism. When Smith was engaged in anti-war activism, White participants offered more positive evaluations when they believed he was weakly identified with his race. On the other hand, when engaged in anti-obesity activism, Whites rated Smith higher when they believed he was strongly identified with his race. The pattern is depicted below. 

Finally, the more trustworthy the participants considered Smith, the better fit they believed he would be for the shoe endorsement. 

The findings show that engaging in potentially controversial forms of activism is not necessarily viewed negatively Instead, we noted that "participants in this study seemed to value authenticity and trustworthiness, regardless of whether the athletes' identities might run counter to the participants' worldviews" (p. 667).

While our study focused on professional athletes, the findings are applicable to the current situation at Mizzou. From my read of the news, the athlete activism seems genuine and spurred by an interest in seeing social justice on campus. It is not surprising, then, that much of the reaction has been positive.

On a broader note, should change not take place, and the football players refuse to participate in the game this Saturday, the university stands to lose millions of dollars. It will be very interesting to see who changes course first--the students, student-athletes, and faculty, or the university administration. If the latter, then the power of sport and athletes to meaningfully affect social change is substantially augmented.  

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** UPDATE **

15 minutes after the original post, news broke that the Missouri President resigned. Another example of voice, passion, and activism creating change. 

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* Cunningham, G. B. & Regan, M. R., Jr. (2012). Political activism, racial identity, and commercial endorsement of athletes. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 47, 657-669.