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Due to their high-profile roles, athletes have always been key influencers on social and cultural issues. And now, thanks to the extended reach of social media platforms, they are finding that they can have a voice on just about any issue. With a single tweet or a single image on Instagram, they can galvanize hundreds of thousands of fans and followers to follow their lead.
The pros of athletes as social influencers
There’s obviously a lot of good that can come about if top athletes lend their voice to important social and cultural issues. For example, consider the example of outspoken women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who has become an advocate of equal pay for women, as well as a supporter of improved race relations. As she noted in an interview following the epic women’s World Cup victory, all athletes have a responsibility to make the world a better place.
And, indeed, over the past five decades, athletes have played an important role in advancing social justice, improved race relations, and important democratic principles. Who can forget the iconic image of Olympic athletes raising their fists in support of black power back in 1968? Or how top athletes like Muhammad Ali have become spokespersons for human rights around the world? In addition, professional athletes can raise awareness about important health and social issues. If you’ve ever turned on a professional sports game and wondered why all the athletes were dressed in pink, then you can understand why visual imagery is so important when advocating for change.
The cons of athletes as social influencers
But what about the downside of athletes as advocates and influencers? Perhaps the best example here is former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has been embraced by brands like Nike at the same time that he has become arguably the most controversial figure in the world of professional sports. While actions such as refusing to sand for the national anthem might be based on deeply held beliefs, such actions are also deeply divisive to society as a whole.
And there’s also the issue of professional athletes opining on issues of which they might have little or no real knowledge. In the constant search for media publicity, some athletes take on causes that they might – or might not – really have any real knowledge about. On social media, it’s far too easy to like, share or comment on content in order to be “on trend.” Unfortunately, changing the color of your social media avatar is not going to change the world, even if you convince thousands of other people to do the same.
Ultimately, social media is a very powerful platform for athletes to make their views heard on social and cultural issues. Given their power as role models and 24/7 visibility on TV and the Internet, it’s easy to see how they can give momentum to any movement or raise awareness on any important issue.
Just remember, however, that just because an individual is good at dunking a round ball or running extremely fast on a grass field does not mean that they need to be unquestioned or unchallenged. Just as athletes have a responsibility to make the world a better place, fans also have a responsibility not to engage in blind hero worship. Social media should be about dialogue, not just about following.