Stars and swipes
Athletic protests today may be permissible or impermissible based on where they fall on the ideological spectrum
Sports figures have long used their platforms to weigh in on political or social justice issues. Long jumper Peter O’Connor waved an Irish flag at the 1906 Olympics in support of Irish independence. Track and field medalists John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised gloved fists in a Black Power salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics. Last year, numerous professional athletes protested the U.S. national anthem and promoted the Black Lives Matter movement, including members of West Virginia University’s football team, the Mountaineers, who wore “BLM” stickers on their helmets.
In some quarters nowadays, though, protests and public displays are apparently permitted only for certain viewpoints. Athletes in college sports and U.S. Olympic competitions increasingly face speech standards that fall along political lines.
Take the case of Kylee McLaughlin, an accomplished college volleyball player who is suing her former school, the University of Oklahoma, and two of its coaches in federal court. A Christian who is politically conservative, McLaughlin alleges in court papers that head coach Lindsey Gray-Walton and her husband, volunteer assistant Kyle Walton, made her sit out her senior season over comments she made to her teammates and on social media.
McLaughlin’s comments to her teammates came within the context of a team discussion of the 2016 documentary 13th, which Gray-Walton made her players watch. The movie examines racial inequality in America’s justice system.
When discussing the documentary with her teammates, McLaughlin took issue with its left-wing slant and shots it took at former President Donald Trump. Echoing the movie’s observations, she also noted the high incarceration rate among blacks and their high rate of drug-related convictions. These comments were apparently enough for teammates to brand McLaughlin a racist.
Adding fuel to the fire was a social media post McLaughlin made about “The Eyes of Texas,” the University of Texas fight song, which critics have claimed has racist underpinnings. A native Texan, McLaughlin used emojis to express her view that the song is not racist. Her coaches later all but compelled her to apologize to members of UT’s volleyball team, which she did.
McLaughlin alleges that the above incidents led Oklahoma’s coaches to give her three options just two weeks prior to the 2020 season: (1) “redshirt”—i.e., postpone her final season of playing eligibility while continuing to practice with her coaches separately from the team and receiving diversity, equity, and inclusion training; (2) quit the team and become a regular student, with her scholarship still being honored; or (3) transfer to another university. She chose the first option and will play her final season as a grad student for the University of Mississippi this fall.
But the University of Oklahoma volleyball team’s speech standards don’t seem to apply in the other direction: On social media, coach Gray-Walton has posted tweets supporting not only Black Lives Matter protests but “Vollequality,” a group that supports LGBT equality while rejecting “racism, homophobia, and discrimination in any form.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Olympic qualifier Gwen Berry aroused anger for protesting the national anthem at the U.S. Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Ore., where she placed third in the women’s hammer throw in June. Standing on the medal podium as the anthem played, Berry placed her hand on her hip rather than her heart and faced the crowd rather than the U.S. flag, protesting systemic racism. She then held above her head a black T-shirt featuring the words “Activist Athlete.”
In an earlier open letter to participating athletes, U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland noted the committee had decided to allow “respectful demonstrations on the topic of racial and social justice” at the track and field trials. The committee’s rules said it allowed athletes to protest the national anthem on the podium or wear a hat that says “Trans Lives Matter,” but did not allow “hate speech” or “protests aimed explicitly against a specific organization, person or group of people.”
Those rules stand in contrast to the rules of the International Olympic Committee, which has banned protests on playing fields during competition, during medal ceremonies, and in the Olympic Village during this year’s Summer Games in Tokyo. (However, athletes will be allowed to protest between events.)
The IOC, international sports federations, and participating countries’ national Olympic committees will collectively determine how best to enforce the ban at the Summer Games. Transgender bicycle motocross rider Chelsea Wolfe, an alternate in the women’s freestyle event, has expressed a desire to burn an American flag on the podium at the Games. It remains to be seen whether Wolfe or other athletes who may carry out such protests will face consequences.
—with additional reporting by Daniel James Devine
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