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Athlete Activism, After Charlottesville

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Many famous athletes have condemned the white supremacist march in Charlottesville. Some, like LeBron James, speak out often on race and social justice issues. But Marcus Thompson, a sportswriter for The Athletic, says there have been new voices speaking up this week.

MARCUS THOMPSON: I think the difference is who's speaking out. You see Sean Doolittle from the Washington Nationals, who's a former Oakland Athletic - you know, him speaking out is a pretty big deal 'cause baseball players don't do this.

CHANG: Why is that? Why is the culture in baseball like that?

THOMPSON: Well, part of the reason is the audience is a little bit older, a little bit more white statistically and a little bit more conservative. So you stand a higher risk to offend the paying audience in baseball than you do in other sports.

CHANG: I notice a number of white athletes did speak out this week. Sean Doolittle, the Nationals pitcher, as you mentioned; Chris and Kyle Long, both NFL players - do you think that makes a difference, when white athletes speak out about something like this?

THOMPSON: Absolutely. I think it's significant. It's major. And foremost, it has always been why sports is so transformative. Even if we look back in the civil rights movement, it has been the bond of white and black players, speaking collectively. So when Chris Long is foaming at the mouth, angry at what happened, you know, it's like - hey, there are black players in his locker room like yes, thank you for being with me on this.

CHANG: But speaking up isn't without risk - right? - in sports because - well, let's talk about the NFL in particular. It's known for having owners that are politically conservative, even socially conservative. It can be risky for an NFL player to rock the boat.

THOMPSON: Oh, no question - right? - especially if you're one of those, like, easily replaceable players. One of the problems with the NFL, unlike the NBA, is No. 1, they don't have guaranteed contracts. And really, like, the top 5 on each team are probably irreplaceable, maybe 10.

CHANG: Right.

THOMPSON: So the onus in the NFL is probably going to be on the star players, the ones who are really secure, the ones you don't have to worry about, the Aaron Rodgers of the world - right? - the Julio Jones and Matt Ryan. I think it's going to be incumbent on those players to really speak out. And that's going to force the owners and, you know, the teams and the league to kind of get on board because what happens - what does Green Bay do if Aaron Rodgers says, hey, man, I'm not really cool with this, and this is wrong? Are they going to cut Aaron Rodgers? Absolutely not.

CHANG: When I think of athlete activism, I guess the iconic figure that jumps into my mind is Muhammad Ali. Who do you think comes closest to carrying on his legacy?

THOMPSON: I would say it has to be, at this point, Colin Kaepernick. One of the...

CHANG: This is the former 49ers quarterback who created a huge controversy when he knelt down during "The Star-Spangled Banner."

THOMPSON: Yes because I think what defines Muhammad Ali was the sacrifice he made. And in no way, shape or form was Colin Kaepernick at Muhammad Ali levels. Their careers are not comparable. But the willingness to give it all up - we just don't see that. We don't see an athlete say, here's my career; here's my potential; here's these millions of dollars and this widespread adoration. I'm going to give it all up because I believe in this. He did it at great sacrifice. He knew it was coming, and he still did it anyway. And for me, like, we just don't see that, not in this era of major sports and conglomeration and endorsements and all that. We don't see people willing to sacrifice all that.

CHANG: Marcus Thompson is a sportswriter for The Athletic. Thanks for joining us.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF STS AND RJD2'S "DON'T GET PLAYED (FEAT. AMOS LEE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.