Shaun Anderson could have stuck to sports, but doesn’t regret going another direction.
A former offensive and defensive lineman at Dollarway High School in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Anderson was pulled toward academics — not football. He now holds three degrees, including a doctorate in organizational communication.
One of his specializations is activism within sports. He has closely studied the relationship between Major League Baseball and black communities.
Had Anderson “stuck to sports” he might not have made it to Los Angeles, where he’s an assistant professor at Loyola Marymount.
“I’ve talked to several athletes who played in the pros and those who are just starting. You hear these stories about: ‘You have to make it,’” Anderson said. “In some black communities, not all, academics are shunned and the athletics are celebrated. That’s not just in households, that’s in schools.”
Stick to sports.
The response has deeper meaning than some may think, and for years has been levied against athletes who have opinions. Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell were told to stick to sports. The phrase experienced a resurgence over the past week during a nationwide dialogue about race, which took place after the death of George Floyd in Minnesota.
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley believes it's nearly impossible to get everyone to reach a consensus on issues, but said it would be wrong of his players to not use the platforms they have to speak about positive change.
“I don’t think (stick to sports) is a good thing, because I think everybody should have a voice,” Riley told The Transcript. “I don’t think it’s a good phrase.”
For black athletes speaking out on human rights, it is an especially painful response woven in racial code, suggesting they are good for only one thing.
“When you think about sport as a whole, you’re talking about people or fans who want to break away from societal norms and lose themselves within this game or teams they’re fans of,” Anderson said. “When you have these black athletes who are then told to ‘stick to’ entertaining us, ‘just be something for us, or we’ll throw you away,’ in a way, it’s a slap in the face to who they are as a person and to their profession.”
The sports world stirred patriotism following 9/11, and today, Americans are mourning the absence of games during the coronavirus pandemic. That raises this question: How can sports be integral to U.S. culture but also exist in a vacuum with regard to other issues?
Ashlynn Dunbar is a two-sport athlete at Oklahoma, where she joined the women’s basketball team after her volleyball eligibility ran out. In a tweet that has gone viral, she encouraged fans who don’t support her voice on issues to not support her on the court.
“When they say that — ‘stick to sports’ — it’s like they see us as a pawn in a game to be used for winning championships, to be used for winning titles,” Dunbar said. “When it comes to our outside lives, that really matters. If we don’t exist, we don’t get to play these games. If you don’t care about us outside these sports, there is no sports without us. It’s dehumanizing, to me.”
Anderson made this point: Some people simply don’t understand athletes based on a misconception that, even those in college, are pampered or overpaid. Sports have been marketed as escapism for people who pay big money to watch and experience them; celebrity status widens the gap between athletes and the working class, with blue- and white-collar workers viewing the groups as separate.
“There’s a disconnect in what’s understood of the day-to-day lives of these athletes versus what’s reality,” Anderson said.
In the case of black athletes speaking on political issues, “stick to sports” can not only be viewed as diminishing, but can be used as a racial arrow, suggesting athletes are incapable of working in fields like politics.
OU defensive back Justin Broiles has spent the past week speaking out at protests, rallies and on Twitter. His strategy for the “stick to sports” crowd is simple: Ignore them, forgive them and focus on making active change.
“But I most definitely understand,” Broiles said. “That’s exactly what it is, (a silencing tactic). You just see us as entertainment; when someone of your race speaks up, he’s a man of opinion.”
Because many teams have diverse rosters, athletes have a unique perspective they should be welcome to express, OU softball coach Patty Gasso said.
“I tell you, that (phrase) is probably, to me, the biggest disgrace and slap in the face you could ever give someone,” Gasso said.
At its lowest form, it cuts away at an athlete’s self worth.
“It can be interpreted in many ways,” Anderson said. “Such as, ‘Oh, you can protest, just don’t do it in a manner that doesn’t discomfort me.’ All the way up to something that’s harsh, saying ‘You are just a slab of meat on a football field for my entertainment. That’s all you’re good for.’
“Let me be more explicit: For any black person who is affected by things going on now or in the past, who hear something like that, that can definitely be code language to say that ‘you don’t matter.’”
Follow me @Tpalmateer83