Thursday, March 12, 2009

Sport in Society Announces “Athlete Bill of Rights”

The Center for Sport and Society lives at Northeastern University in Boston. Their mission as described on the web site is:

“Through innovative programming and extensive outreach that impacts thousands both locally and worldwide, Sport in Society uses the power and appeal of sport to foster diversity, prevent men’s violence against women, eradicate youth violence, and improve the health of disenfranchised urban youth, all of which are critical to the health and safety of our citizens.”

CSS is a long time leader in addressing multiple social justice issues in sport, including racism, sexism, homophobia/heterosexism, and ableism. I attended and gave a keynote speech at their Power of Sport Summit last summer. Human rights and athlete activism in sport were themes that ran through the entire conference.

Eli Wolff, the manager of research and advocacy at the center, sent me their newly developed Athlete Bill of Rights. The Sport in Society Athlete Bill of Rights focuses on the rights of athletes within athletics. One of the main goals of the Bill of Rights is to “empower athletes to advocate for their own rights” through open discussion and debate and through this process, encourage athlete activism.

Athletes are sometimes thought of as products owned by professional franchises or college athletic departments. Some coaches assume as their prerogative the power to control an athlete’s personal and political expression including how they spend their time out of the athletic context, and with whom they socialize. Potential distractions from the athletic agenda are discouraged. From this perspective, an athlete’s “job” is to maximize their athletic performance to produce championships and fill sports arenas. Scholarship athletes in Division 1 programs are often expected to be single mindedly focused on this goal, and of course, get grades that enable them to maintain their athletic eligibility. In this context, little time or discussion is devoted to human rights or athlete activism in sport.

Being a member of a team and a representative of a school in the case of collegiate sport does require submitting to some common expectations and “rules” and coaches should make these expectations clear to team members. The rub, of course, is deciding what are reasonable expectations for team rules. Is it reasonable for a coach to forbid an athlete from: Speaking at an anti-war rally on campus? Assuming leadership of a campus political advocacy group? Coming out publicly as lesbian, gay or bisexual? Participating in a political protest? Wearing a style of clothes or choosing a hair style the coach objects to?

Coaches have amazing power over the athletes on their teams. Coaches decide who gets to play and who sits on the bench. Coaches are sometimes given incredible license to act in ways that would not be tolerated by a professor with students in the classroom or a supervisor with employees in the workplace. Screaming at an athlete nose to nose on national TV, shaking an athlete or in some other laying hands on them, throwing temper tantrums (and chairs or clipboards), using obscenities and slurs and any number of other behaviors that would not fly in another educational or professional context.

In response to such coach behavior, athletes have few options: suck it up and try harder, transfer and play at another school, quit the team and sport altogether, or in rare cases, bring a lawsuit if they don’t like the coach’s rules or treatment. They could complain to athletic administrators, but, if the coach has a winning tradition or the backing of powerful alumni, it takes a lot of courage to challenge a coach. An athlete in this situation sometimes can’t even count on teammates to back them up. Most athletes choose to suck it up. Some even believe that this kind of coach behavior is merely evidence of intensity and commitment, necessary components of motivation and a winning attitude. They might even be suspicious of a coach who didn’t act this way.

Because this description is reality for some athletic programs, the idea of protecting athletes’ rights in sport and encouraging athlete activism in or out of sport challenge some deeply embedded practices and beliefs in big time collegiate and professional athletics.

Sounds like a plan to me.

1 comment:

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