There is no shortage of examples of athletes using their public platforms to elevate social justice causes, from the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics to the Black Lives Matter marches led by collegiate athletes in the summer of 2020, and the countless moments in between. Multiple athletes in American history have chosen to place their careers on the line to make a statement — in the last half century, these protests have often taken place in the name of combating racial injustice, specifically against Black Americans. And far too often, the athletes are left alone and abandoned, sometimes ostracized, from their sport for having the courage to speak out after they’ve succeeded in getting to a national or international stage.
I’m not sure what’s worse — being left out to dry, as the NFL did to Colin Kaepernick, or whatever the leagues are doing in order to seem like they’re trying these days. Players aren’t punished for peaceful protests anymore, but in 2020, Rob Manfred tried to pull off a protest publicity stunt during an MLB game. He then proceeded to defend the racism behind the Braves’ name and traditions in 2021. The NFL plastered “End Racism” in end zones throughout the country in 2020 while still essentially refusing to hire or retain Black coaches in 2022 (do I need to remind you that 70 percent of the players are Black?). The public efforts of major sports leagues have often rung distinctively false and seemed as though they’re just attempting to cling onto some sort of trendy concept of racial justice.
And in the middle of the athletes and the organizations lie the coaches and executives — a group that signed a letter to West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin this week urging him to support the Freedom to Vote Act, which aims to restore several original aspects of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Alabama coach Nick Saban, who grew up in West Virginia and walked alongside his players in a Black Lives Matter march, is one of the signers of the letter, along with former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and NBA executive and former player and coach Jerry West, a favorite son of the Mountain State.
The letter reads, in part: “So we are united now in urging Congress to exercise its Constitutional responsibility to enact laws that set national standards for the conduct of Federal elections and for decisions that determine election outcomes.” Former WVU and NFL athletes Oliver Luck (father of Andrew) and Darryl Talley were the other two signers.
Does this read as a genuine effort or as an empty, for-show gesture? Of course, racial justice matters are at the root of voting rights bills like this one, as Black Americans are the most frequent victims of voter suppression and disenfranchisement. Figures like Saban have very different platforms available to them than the athletes themselves — while the athletes are able to make public statements and amplify their messages on social media, higher-level coaches and executives often have direct ties to the people in power. Saban and Manchin, for instance, have been friends since their childhood in the 1950s. Saban is also the Messiah of the religion of Southern football, giving him a real modicum of power in the region.
Is the letter strongly worded? No, not particularly. It doesn’t read as an urgent demand for justice, by any means, and no one’s career is getting laid on the line because of it. Perhaps the most condemning paragraph says that states have “enacted dozens of laws that restrict voting access” that “seek to secure partisan advantage by eliminating reliable practices with proven safeguards and substituting practices ripe for manipulation.”
But we never know — perhaps hearing from one of his most publicly influential friends will change Manchin’s mind on giving Americans voting rights, but without a financial incentive, it seems highly unlikely that he’ll shift his views (though maybe I’m just being a cynic). So this letter isn’t exactly groundbreaking stuff, but it’s also not a meaningless front in place of real effort, either. Saban, Tagliabue, and the other signers directly address one specific legal issue in the broader ongoing fight for racial justice, and Saban in particular, risks antagonizing a chunk of his fan base — not that there’s really a huge risk there. He’ll keep coaching, they’ll keep coming to games, nothing will really change. He doesn’t face the same scrutiny that protesting athletes — and particularly the Black athletes who speak out against injustice — have to face in the aftermath of their dissent.
It’s something real, at least, more concrete than the empty platitudes that professional and collegiate athletes have been hearing from the higher-ups for decades. Saban’s not one to be a phony, and while his letter included a footnote saying that he in particular did not support getting rid of the filibuster, it’s an unexpected public move. Whether it will actually change anything remains to be seen, of course, but it’s a good example for more coaches and execs in the business to remember that they can use their public platforms for a legitimate cause, beholden not only to the people who sign their paychecks, but to the athletes who have played for and with them throughout their careers.