Why athletes are getting more political in the age of Trump

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors reacts in the third quarter of Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Steph Curry takes aim at Trump
00:52 - Source: CNN

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The rise of activism in the Trump age is reminiscent of the 60s

A broader cultural shift in sports has encouraged athletes to speak out

Washington CNN  — 

When Beyoncé got political and paid tribute to the “Black Lives Matter” movement at the Super Bowl last year, many sports fans were up in arms, accusing the star of violating what some consider to be an unspoken rule: Keep politics out of sports.

But in an America that is still reeling from a divisive presidential election cycle, where the rise of President Donald Trump catapulted heated debates over race and social issues into the mainstream, many athletes are becoming politically active in a way not seen in decades. And not everyone is happy about it.

“Sports is really no longer an escape from the real world that it used to be. Sports is a mirror of our society,” CNN Sports Analyst Christine Brennan said. “I think because Trump is so controversial and because the things he’s saying and doing run counter to what many people believe … athletes are finding their voice in a way that is reminiscent of the 1960s.”

Jacksonville Jaguars' Telvin Smith raises his fist during the National Anthem on September 25, 2016.

While Trump found some of his most vocal backers in the sports world – he was endorsed by famous athletes and coaches, including legendary college basketball coach Bobby Knight and former All-Star pitcher Curt Shilling – it is the opposition to Trump and the debates surrounding racism and women’s rights that have revitalized activism in American sports.

A growing group of top tier athletes — from Super Bowl winners, basketball MVP’s, boxing champions, ballet dancers, Olympic medalists in soccer, figure skating and fencing, and sports legends like Billie Jean King and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — have formed a passionate chorus protesting the state of American politics.

Travel ban ignites fury

Since winning the election, Trump’s travel ban on refugees and immigrants from seven majority Muslim countries, has escalated the backlash and drawn criticism from many corners of the sports world.

Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who made history in the 2016 Olympics as the first female Muslim American to win a medal for the United States and the first American to compete wearing a hijab, slammed Trump’s ban on Tuesday, saying she has been discriminated against as a Muslim.

Ibtihaj Muhammad celebrates victory over Olena Kravatska of Ukraine during on Day 3 of the Rio 2016 Olympics.

“… Even though I represent Team USA and I have that Olympic hardware, it doesn’t change how you look and how people perceive you,” she said. “Unfortunately, I know that people talk about this having a lot to do with these seven countries in particular, but I think the net is cast a little bit wider than we know. And I’m included in that as a Muslim woman who wears a hijab.”

CNN has reached out to the White House for comment and has not yet received a response.

Under Armour-sponsored athletes Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry and star ballet dancer Misty Copeland both took issue with CEO Kevin Plank this week for calling Trump a “real asset” to the United States.

Curry, who was not known for inserting himself into politics prior to 2016, publicly confronted the CEO of Under Armour Kevin Plank, saying, “I agree with that description if you remove the ‘et’ from asset.”

Cleveland Cavaliers star forward Lebron James slammed Trump’s travel ban last week, saying, it “does not represent what the United States is about.”

And NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who formally endorsed Clinton, said the ban makes America “a bad horror movie.”

Six New England Patriots players, including Martellus Bennett and Devin McCourty, who protested racism on the field by raising their fists during the national anthem, announced that they will skip the team’s upcoming White House visit, where they will be honored by Trump for winning this year’s Super Bowl.

While not all six cited political reasons, some specifically pointed to their opposition to Trump.

“Basic reason for me is I don’t feel accepted in the White House,” McCourty said. “With the President having so many strong opinions and prejudices, I believe certain people might feel accepted there while others won’t.”

Another Patriots player skipping White House visit over Trump

Warriors head coach Steve Kerr and San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich both slammed Trump last month in what Brennan describes as “absolutely the stuff of history.”

“I’m completely against what’s happening. I think it’s shocking. It’s a horrible idea,” Kerr said, reacting to news of the travel ban. “I feel for all the people that are affected. Families are being torn apart, and I worry in the big picture what this means to the security of the world.”

And before he died in June, Muhammad Ali dove into another political battle and spoke out against what was then candidate Trump’s proposed temporary “Muslim ban.”

“We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda,” Ali said in December. “They have alienated many from learning about Islam. True Muslims know or should know that it goes against our religion to try and force Islam on anybody.”

Back to the 60s

When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem in August to protest racial injustice, he quickly became one of the most controversial figures in sports like several others before him.