Sports Organizations As Social Activists: They’ve Long Been Players

By T. Wayne Waters

Just this year we’ve seen very public responses by major sports organizations to “hot button” social/cultural/political issues. The potential interplay between gay rights and religious freedom that arose in the legislative processes of Indiana and Arkansas around the time of the NCAA Final Four tournament prompted responses from the NCAA, NBA, NASCAR, and other sports organizations (see SportsEvents, May 2015, pages 14-15).

The Confederate flag issue drew considerable media coverage, including a personal response from SportsEvents Publisher Talty O’Connor in the June 2015 issue. NCAA, ACC and NASCAR were some of the sport organizations that issued statements supporting the removal of the flag from the South Carolina state capitol grounds.

NASCAR chairman Brian France issued a statement calling for the elimination of the Confederate flag from all NASCAR events, an expansion of its anti-Confederate flag policies that had been in place for more than a decade.

The president of the Daytona National Speedway initiated a flag swap campaign for the July Coke Zero 400 race scheduled on Independence Day weekend. Fans bringing a Confederate flag could swap it for a U.S. flag, but they could keep and fly the Stars and Bars if they chose to. Some, reportedly, did so.

NCAA President Mark Emmert’s statement made clear the organization’s long-time stance regarding the use of the Confederate flag. “The NCAA strongly supports today’s removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds,” Emmert said. “This step sends an important message of respect for and dignity of every person. As a national association, the NCAA opposes this symbol of racism, and since 2001 we have demonstrated our opposition by not playing pre-selected championships in states where the flag was flown prominently. The removal of the Confederate flag now means that South Carolina can bid to host future NCAA championships.”

ACC Commissioner John Swofford’s statement indicated a similar perspective. “I personally applaud the decision to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State Capitol,” Swofford said. “With this change, bids to host future ACC Championships will be accepted from interested South Carolina cities, with no additional stipulations placed on them because of the Confederate flag.”

Since 2000, the ACC has followed the lead of the NAACP boycott regarding the flag issue, and not held pre-determined championships in South Carolina. In 2005, this stance was loosened a bit to allow case-by-case considerations in South Carolina. In 2009, Myrtle Beach won the bid for a three-year run as host to the ACC baseball tournament to start in 2011 but it was overturned based on the Confederate flag issue.

Activism Nothing New In Sports World

Much of this type of activism of late has been generated by collegiate sports organizations, but professional sports organizations have also played a role recently and historically in such matters. NASCAR is a good organization to illustrate that these instances were not, of course, the first time such statements had been made or actions taken regarding social issues. Three years ago, the stock car racing organization refused to allow PGA star Bubba Watson to drive his Confederate flag-emblazoned Dukes of Hazzard General Lee car around the track before an event at Phoenix International Raceway. The organization has prevented the Confederate flag from appearing on any of its racecars or official materials for more than a decade.

Other cases in recent decades include negative responses to Arizona’s Immigration Law SB 1070 in 2010 by some NBA and MLB athletes and teams. The MLB Players’ Association Executive Director Michael Weiner issued a statement opposing the law at the time and threatened further action. Despite considerable pressure, however, Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig refused to relocate the All Star Game scheduled the following year at Chase Field in Phoenix. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down three of the SB 1070s provisions and has refused to revisit other immigration-related appeals that had been ruled on by lower federal courts, essentially dismantling much of Arizona’s immigration policies.

In 1990, the NFL responded to the state of Arizona’s refusal to honor Martin Luther King Day by voting to change the scheduled 1993 Super Bowl locale from Tempe, Ariz., to Pasadena, Calif. The Grand Canyon State was awarded the 1996 Super Bowl after Arizona voters decided to reverse the state’s position.

The topic of race in sports is not new. In the 19th and 20th centuries, college athletics and the U.S. Olympic Committee made powerful social statements by including African American athletes. In 1950s, professional sports programs began making their own statements by signing on Jackie Robinson, Earl Lloyd, Willie O’Ree, Marion Motley and others.

All along the way, reactions to controversial social issues by sports organizations have created controversy to one degree or another.


SportEvents solicited comments for this article from amateur sports organizations, sports commissions and CVBs and received two responses.

Hill Carrow, CEO, Triangle Sports Commission, an organization dedicated to the promotion of Olympic and other amateur sports in the central North Carolina region anchored by Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, said social activism of the sort addressed here is “totally fair” and something that “helps communities keep their eye on the ball of right and wrong in contemporary society.” He views the role of athletes and sports organizations as naturally proactive. “Athletes have always been held to a higher standard because they are often perceived as larger than life role models,” Carrow said. “Given this positioning for athletes, it is very reasonable to put sports as a whole in a leadership position, using the power of sports for good. That is exactly how the Modern Day Olympics got started in the 1890s by a significant group of leaders of the World Peace Movement.”

Carrow is also keenly aware of the potential consequences to locales if they have adopted a position that seems out of step with contemporary social and political perspectives. “It’s been clearly demonstrated that a community, region or state stance on a significant social issue can hurt in the quest for sports events and activities,” he said. “There is no clearer example than the flag controversy in South Carolina and the unequivocal stance of the NCAA, ACC and others that no major championships would be held in the state as long as the flag remained in place at the Capitol.”

Bob Crowley, executive director of USA Water Ski, sees such social activism as problematic. “NGBs are membership organizations. We have a broad spectrum of membership, and they believe different things about different issues,” said Crowley. “I’d be surprised if USA Water Ski got out in front of any social issues because membership is likely on both sides of such issues. We’re here to serve our membership and to serve them with the sport. That’s our job. If it’s an issue that significantly impacts the sport, we will get involved with it. For example, there’s a government effort right now to expand the use of ethanol 15 in all gas boats, an increase in the level of ethanol in our common gasoline. That level of ethanol wreaks havoc on the engines of boats that power water skiing. We’ll write some letters and reach out to make an impact on any potential legislation of that kind because that’s specific to the needs of our constituency.”

However, Crowley added, “We are an equal opportunity participation organization. We do not discriminate on any basis.”