The Ways How The Media Influences Society Through Athletes And Activism

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The media have a lot of influence in how they shape society. We trust them to tell us breaking news so that we can understand what is happening in our world, we trust them to tell the weather accurately so that we can plan our day, and we trust the media to continue telling us the news in an unbiased manner so that we can form our own opinions. As such, the role that the sport media plays in beginning the conversation regarding athletes and their potential activism is akin to a security camera that is always running: if one witnesses a historic event for good or bad, no one can argue with the footage. The media inherently influences society by reporting important news. Humanity will always have its biases, so it is important to understand the truth behind any situation before anyone decides to intervene. To help facilitate this reasoning, this essay will cover how the media helps gives athletes a voice to air their grievances, how different aspects of the media help to push certain narratives, and how the different forms of media helps sports-related activism and economics get off the ground.

It has become readily apparent in this technologically-advanced age that the media gives athletes a voice to air their grievances with both their game and society at large, for better or worse. For example, Colin Kaepernick of the NFL took a knee in order to “… make people uncomfortable and raise awareness” (Zirin) Kaepernick’s views were perpetuated through the media, especially in articles like Zirin’s where over a year later of when Kaepernick originally kneeled during the national anthem of an NFL Game. In it, Zirin describes what happened to Kaepernick, as even though he had not been back in the NFL for over a year up to that point in time, Zirin called Kapernick’s initiative a ‘victory’ due to what NFL players gained.

The victory that the NFL players received resulted in “… promises of financial commitments from the NFL for their social-justice work…” (Zirin). They also received support in a bill sent to the US Congress “… in support of a bill called the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017. The bill would reduce minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders” (Zirin). These are things that could not have been done without the media publicizing Kaepernick and other players taking a knee during NFL games. In fact, had this event occurred a few decades prior with no internet and print and television media’s overall ‘scarcity’ (Hutchins, and Rowe 354) the conversation would have never started to begin with. Kaepernick provided the impetus for the media and the public at large to discuss issues that they felt plagued the NFL and society at large, to mostly favourable results.

However, as much as the media helped Kaepernick and his like-minded compatriots, it also spelled disaster for Kaepernick’s career. In a recent article, J.P. Losman, a quarterback who last played seven years ago, was asked to come out of retirement (Roscher). This is even though Kaepernick is seven years younger then Losman and only last played an NFL game two years ago (Roscher). Why this is occurring is because Kaepernick, for all the good that he inspired through his protest, cost money for both the NFL and it sponsors. The NFL in particular “… lost sponsors… [and] the other players who took a knee with Colin last year… have received death threats. They’ve [also] been threatened with suspension by team owners” (Zirin). While activism is good when it suits big companies and corporations, when it hits their bottom line, they seek ways to either squelch opposition or silence the ones causing trouble. Essentially, while the NFL stands for National Football League, “… sport and the media… both have a global and local scope of operation…” (Houlihan 198). For Kaepernick, this means not being allowed to play in the NFL after he began his protests due financial and political factors. The eyes of the world are still on Kaepernick, and the NFL likely does not want the potential bad publicity if he were to play again.

Along with Kaepernick, the media has also brought attention to other topics that have grown increasingly important in cultural conversations recently, such as homophobia. For professional soccer in Europe, it has been cited as something that has been slowly changing since “… Justin Fashanu [decided] to come out in 1990 during a period of high cultural homophobia” (Cleland 411). Since then, there has been a “… cultural shift occurring in professional football” (Cleland 411). This cultural shift is perhaps best represented when in 2010 the English Football Association “… dropped a national campaign on homophobia claiming that the game was not yet ready for one to take place” (Cleland 415). This is interesting because it states that while people (and organizations) know and understand that homophobia is a terrible thing, they also know that due to lingering homophobia, it is not the time for closeted players to come out yet. To these organizations and closeted players, there is not a welcoming enough presence in society for any homophobia to be deflected or even severely curtailed. This is largely in part due to online social media that has allowed individuals to speak their minds without much in the way of consequences, such as online message boards.

While the media at large must take responsibility for its own actions, places like online message boards and Twitter means that this responsibility is dulled or even fully negated. In an analysis taken between November 2011 to February 2012, “… two prominent association football (soccer) message boards… examined fans’ views toward racism in English football… [with] racist discourse… used by some supporters… (Cleland 415). Racism is nothing new, but in recent years it has certainly not been as ‘in vogue’ as it used to be decades prior. However, the analysis of the two message boards proves that there are still individuals who still feel the need to air their racism or homophobia on social media without fear of reprisal. One crucial point from the analysis was that the football fans currently “… act and speak in a way which reinforced racial inequality without them recognizing the moral implication of their actions in words” (Cleland 423). This makes sense, as humans are creatures of habit. Something new with potential ramifications for their sport—such as athletes coming out of the closet—would most likely result in ‘fans’ referring to gays derogatorily and sending them insults. Overall, it is not as if they do not know any better, but that they do not care.

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Social discourse in sports is not just limited to online message boards either. Twitter is also a mostly unregulated social media website, and this means it has its own share of trolls, racists, and bigots. However, this does not mean that Twitter is completely infested. In fact, it can be used as a good marketing tool for organizations looking to up their fan participation during crucial games. During the final games of the 2012 College World Series, “… five major hashtags were noted for each baseball team as primary identifiers; users fit in 3 main groups and subgroups” (Smith, and Smith 539). This is because the very nature of sports teams offers people the chance to align with a specific team or club. By giving hashtags so like-minded people can directly communicate with one another, one can easily discern that cliques can easily form, which can then produce content for other people to enjoy. In fact, “… social media have opened up a new door for consumers. No longer do consumers just watch a game; it is these highly identified consumers and fans who are also tweeting about the game… [to] like-minded consumers” (Smith, and Smith 551). With social media, fan participation has risen because they can talk to other people watching the same game. This helps promote the ‘product’ that would be on display for fans and consumers.

When watching a football, basketball, or other professional sporting event, one is watching a product. Usually, one watches a match where two teams of professional athletes compete against one another in order to win. As such, sports media is essential for the professional league in order to make money. They advertise and promote the match, they show it on air on television or through internet streaming, and they talk about it online and in print. Because of this easy to manufacture publicity, professional leagues can more easily expand their influence worldwide. By expanding their influence, it allows events, teams, and even players to stand out from the rest. If it is the Stanley Cup Finals (SCF), then everyone who even remotely cares will know that the SCF are coming soon. This also means that if a player is notably above his peers in skill and appeal and wants to sell his own apparel and build his own brand, they can also do that.

One of the first notable examples of a player creating his own brand was Michael Jordan, whose “… celebrity drawing power… demonstrated that merchandise could be promoted in a much more systemic manner” (Whitson 311). The media is integral in order to make this happen. With Jordan, “… Chicago Bulls gear was sold around the world, much of it to people who had never seen Jordan play” (Whitson 311). This is an incredibly important distinction, because the fact that most Jordan’s ‘fans’ had never seen him play and yet they bought his gear is an example of how media influences people. If people had never heard of Jordan, then they would never buy his gear. Once the floodgates opened and Jordan’s apparel was sold in areas that do not really follow basketball, companies realized the potential gold mine they could tap. For example, Madrid and Manchester United, two of Europe’s major soccer clubs, “… now regularly report higher earnings from merchandising and sponsorship than they do from gate receipts” (Whitson 311). If an individual or a team has excellent history and/or unique players, then they will attract international attention that is largely bolstered through various forms of the media. While most had never seen Jordan play, they would most likely have seen clips of him on television or online, something that was an impossibility just a decade prior.

Throughout recent history, “the profession of sport journalism has been central to the growth of both newspapers and commercial sport, while various journalists have played crucial roles in the social construction of sports news…” (Scherer 248). This has not changed, but there are now more facets to consider. Once the sports media exclusively reported on just events that happened in sports. Now, however, things like Kaepernick—things tangentially related to sports—are being reported on. An example of this would be the World Cup Strikes, where “… more than seventy thousand workers took part in strikes connected to World Cup projects between 2007 and 2010” (Zirin 181). The reason that the strikes were even noticed to begin with is because of the ‘three billion’ people that were watching the strikes live on television (Zirin 181). When there are so many people watching a strike, this limits the organization from simply sweeping it under the rug. The media were integral to keeping the strikes alive within the public consciousness. A similar situation to World Cup Strikes would be the soccer-related violence occurred in Poland from 1989-2012, which also needed media attention for it to be brought to light.

Starting in the late 1980’s, Polish soccer stadiums were monitored by “… unprofessional and inexperienced law enforcement agencies” (Antonowicz, and Grodecki 497). This is particularly egregious because the soccer stadiums were described as having a tradition of ‘freedom’ that allowed them to essentially act however they pleased. This rose to such extremes that in 1993 when a Poland and English match erupted into violence, it “… came as symbolic proof of the inefficiency of the state and the power of hooligans” (Antonowicz, and Grodecki 497). With the media showcasing the evidence, there was now documented proof that lawmakers could use to state that violence within Polish soccer stadiums was becoming a growing problem. Essentially, it is one thing to hear about something, but it is another to see it, which the sports media provided by showing clips of the violence that occurred in Polish soccer stadiums.

In the end, the media is akin to a lumbering goliath that demolishes everything in its path. With the rise of the internet and instant communication, media has become readily accessible on a global scale. Whether its riots, apparel, or hooliganism, the media now has the capability to bring the focus directly to the issue at hand, whereas before news would be a lot slower to circulate, if it ever did. For athletes such as Colin Kaepernick, their activism would have never taken off without the media immediately focusing on it and circulating it wherever they could. By alerting the public to whatever was happening, the public can react to the news however they wish to, which is what the media is supposed to do to begin with. As a neutral observer, the sports media is like a security camera which always runs and keeps track of whatever new event or story making news. Without the media, there is no international expansion or influence for professional leagues, or even national influence. Games would be unorganized, and it is the media we must thank for the professional sporting leagues that we are so used to today.

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