Monday, January 05, 2015

What counts as activism? What's the message?

With the protests that spread in the wake of the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York and the spate of police shootings of unarmed black youth, I have felt the need to write about the activism, especially the actions of athletes in lending their voices and actions to these protests, and the support of team owners, coaches, and administrators in supporting these athletes against those who would try to silence them by suggesting they should stick to sports and/or are being disrespectful. These responses, by both fans and organizations like police associations, display the power athletes have in contributing to the public discourse. (It is not as if other individual protesters are being targeted by police associations.)

We have written a little about the campus activism around sexual assault and Title IX, but there has not been an obvious presence or concerted effort by student-athletes to join these campaigns. This is not a condemnation, just an observation.

In the wake of the decision not to punish Florida State University football player Jameis Winston for sexual assault (or anything else that he has done), there has been a lot of writing about the mishandling of every stage of the process--including the student conduct hearing--but no protests.

What happened after FSU lost the Rose Bowl to the University of Oregon on January 1 was not a protest either. The Oregon players who chanted "no means no" were not taking a stand against sexual assault--they were rubbing salt into the wound of the loser. It was similar to the taunts aimed at Cam Newton ("Scam Newton") and the playing of "Take the Money and Run" during the 2010 Iron Bowl held at Alabama. The similarity in both cases is that both Newton and Winston were found not responsible by various (and multiple) authorities. So the taunts were basically meaningless. Newton certainly shrugged them off and went off to the NFL, and it appears Winston will do the same.

What adds to the "this is not activism" verdict on Oregon's actions is that their chants occurred while they were doing the tomahawk chop--a highly offensive, racially insensitive action (no matter what "arrangements" financial or otherwise have been made with the Seminole Nation of Florida).

Football players and other student-athletes should step up and make a statement about campus sexual assault--and while they are at it perhaps misuse of Native American symbols and names. But this was not a statement. It was poor sportspersonship--even if perhaps Winston deserved it. It was not a stand against sexual assault or violence against women.  In fact it was a belittling of the issue because it was a device used to hurt Winston and the FSU community, not to support sexual assault victims or the campaigns against campus violence.The players will allegedly be punished. I suspect it will not be a meaningful punishment (like volunteering at a domestic violence shelter) and certainly will not disadvantage the Ducks when they play for the championship next week. In other words, it will likely be meaningless (and yet still more punishment than Winston ever received).