Athletes Use Agency for Social Justice

In our Healing Centered Engagement training, we discuss the importance of having agency and using it effectively to combat the effects of oppression and other social toxins. Agency is a power that we all have to think for ourselves and act in ways that shape our future and life experiences. Agency exists at both the individual and the collective level.

We recently witnessed professional athletes exercise collective agency to bring necessary attention to a social justice issue. In August, athletes of the National Basketball Association (NBA) refused to take the court for their playoff games. They felt compelled to respond to yet another incident of police shooting an unarmed Black person. Very quickly, other athletes and teams sat out from their games and practices so public attention could be given to this serious issue. Across the nation, we’ve seen similar actions take place as people want to see swifter and fair justice, as well as equal treatment under the law.

Dr. Isaac Prilleltensky, a psychologist who has written extensively on well-being and human flourishing, recently addressed the importance of activism. He wrote, “Fighting for a fair social system can bring about benefits for you and others. There is evidence that political activism (collective agency) leads to improved psychological well-being. Activism enhances a sense of control over your life and combats helplessness and hopelessness.”

NBA players practice agency.
Players including Brooklyn Nets’ Garrett Temple, center, kneel around a Black Lives Matter logo before the start of an NBA basketball game Friday, July 31, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)

What we’ve witnessed during this summer of uncertainty and upheaval is that the American public is unwilling to sit on the sidelines waiting for the government to step up and address documented instances of abuse, unequal application of the law, and other indications of racial prejudice. The people have taken to the streets and social media to speak out and demand change. In the professional sports world, athletes used their agency to demand a focus on voting. These demands included:

  • Converting home arenas into voting locations to expand access to safe voting
  • Adding Public Service Announcements about voting into the playoff commercial schedule
  • Creating a social justice coalition

Similarly, football players for the University of Texas in Austin refused to participate in recruiting or fundraising efforts until both the athletic department and the administration agreed to certain items. Their demands included:

  • Donating 0.5% of the department’s annual earnings to the Black Lives Matter movement and similar organizations
  • Renaming parts of the football stadium after Julius Whittier, the first Black football letterman at UT-Austin
  • Renaming buildings named after known segregationists
  • Increasing outreach to inner-city schools in Austin, Houston, and Dallas

These are just two examples of collective agency being used to draw attention and force change to social inequities. In both instances, the groups followed four important steps to build agency.

Four Steps to Build Agency 

  1. Awareness: The best defense to overcoming barriers to agency is knowledge. When we are aware of the barriers to agency, including those issues that make it difficult for us to engage in agency, we can begin to identify where to start.  
  1. Dialogue: Clear conversation about the reasons for the barriers as well as how we feel about the barriers removes the stigma. When we find that others are experiencing the same feelings, we can work collectively to tear down objective barriers to agency. 
  1. Action: Action is the natural progression from becoming aware and discussing barriers. Working collectively, change can occur as people take positive action to address barriers to agency. This is an important step for our youth or for any group that may feel powerless against structural barriers to agency.  
  1. Measure/Reflect: These four steps can be cyclical. It’s important to measure the impact of any action taken and reflect on what happened, what needs to happen, or how better to discuss and act on the barrier. In this way, we can re-engage through these steps again and again until agency is achieved. 

Today, find a small way to practice agency wherever you may be. Make this the weekend you only shop at minority-owned businesses, or volunteer to work with minority youth, or participate in a silent protest outside your local police station. Whatever you do, be intentional and be clear about what you are doing and why. Take ownership of your action and do good.