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From Black Power Salute to Colin Kaepernick to Serena Williams: Ethics in Sports

I’ve read many articles on whether Serena Williams’ behavior at the US Open during her finals match against Naomi Osaka was justified, an over-the-top emotional response to perceived unfair treatment, expressing her first amendment rights, or a little bit of each. Williams raised the issue of sexism in explaining the ferocity of her behavior.

What I haven’t read about is a comparison to Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the playing of the national anthem during his time as quarterback of the SF 49ers to protest what he deems are wrongdoings against African Americans and minorities in the US. Moreover, no one seems to have linked Williams’ actions to the Black Power salute during the awards ceremony at the 1968 Olympics where African-American athletes Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos raised their fists in the air during the national anthem as a gesture to the absence of civil rights for black Americans.

It’s obvious that what these three events have in common is the perception by black athletes that there is a problem in America whether with sexism or racism. The ethical question is whether these athletes were justified in their actions. In other words, was it the right time, in the right place, and in the right way in which they expressed their point of view.

What do we mean by "sports ethics?" A large part of ethics is defining a person's moral responsibilities to others. Do professional athletes have an ethical responsibility to set an example for the people living in their communities? Was the message sent indicative of what a role model in sports should do?

I have to admit to being taken aback at each of these three events but, upon reflection, now believe it’s all right for athletes to express their points of view even during sporting events so long as it doesn’t interfere with the playing of the game or treat their opponents in a harmful/unfair/inconsiderate manner, as did Williams. That is the difference between what Williams did as compared to Kaepernick and the Olympic athletes. Williams’ actions robbed Naomi Osaka of her moment of glory: her first grand slam win and the first Japanese player to win a grand slam. She deserved better and while it’s understandable that Williams didn’t think about these matters during her tirade and whether her behavior was over the top – focusing instead on each point, the game, the match --, she did act out of selfishness and, dare I say, entitlement.

As for Kaepernick, what seemed like, at the time, an isolated incident now seems more like an expression of protest against racism that is shared by many other NFL players and large segments of society. There seems to be a disproportionate number of black Americans stopped and searched for no good reason, treated harshly in some incidents, and discriminated against in the criminal justice system. It’s almost as if they are guilty until proven innocent. Don’t get me wrong. They commit crimes and should be punished. It’s the perception that the system signals them out for unfair treatment that concerns me.

What about Smith and Carlos? Let’s remember their protest was during the height of civil rights marches when black Americans, following the example of Martin Luther King, were expressing their concerns about unfair treatment in society in a nonviolent way.

We live in a different world today where the expression of one’s point of view occurs whenever a person/group feels discriminated against or when indifference to their concerns are not taken seriously. We can debate whether their perceptions are valid. But, what we shouldn’t debate is they have a right to express their point of view in whatever way they choose as long as it isn’t through violent action or harms others.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 24, 2018. Sign up for Steve’s newsletter on his website. Follow him on Facebook. Like his page.

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