I was thoroughly annoyed. Why my coach had asked me to watch “13th” –– a documentary about racism in the American carceral system –– when I had signed up to play basketball, was beyond me. So as I sat in front of my bedroom TV and prepared to watch the film, I was determined to hate it. And yet, I couldn’t. As a 14-year old kid from the west side of Chicago, “13th” illuminated the challenges my community faced. It clearly explained how federal and state policy on crime contributed to the disadvantage in my neighborhood, a neighborhood that was — and still is — over-policed and starved of resources. It gave voice to an injustice I was vaguely aware of but could not articulate. And it did the same for my entire team, which was comprised of students from various racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. In simply getting my team to watch a film, my basketball coach had effectively organized our sentiments in support of a more just legal system, using our common passion for sports to bridge the divides in our backgrounds. 

The start of March Madness had led me to reflect on this moment, and on the strange ability of sports to unite people around a common goal. It now seems quite clear that sports have the unique potential to be hubs of activism. They can be used to found, build and expand transformative social movements –– movements that challenge dominant cultural narratives and change our world for the better.

The skills that sports teach –– like teamwork, diligence, perseverance and communication –– lend themselves well to the work of activism and community organizing. Like the activist, the athlete must work with diverse groups of people to achieve a common objective. Like the activist, the athlete routinely has to overcome failure and continue their push toward success. And like the activist, the athlete has to be able to articulate to others how and why they want to accomplish their goal. 

The transferability of these skills means that athletes can easily transition from sports to activism, and researchers Peter Kaufman and Eli Wolff agree. In their research, Kaufman and Wolff found that, through sports, “People could learn initiative, community endeavor, collective rather than individual values, self determination, etc., that could permit them to begin to take charge of their own lives and communities.” Just look at how sports have been a hotbed of activism in recent years. The WNBA has been at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement, Colin Kaepernick’s kneel transformed the way we think about patriotism and Naomi Osaka’s fashion statements brought worldwide attention to police brutality. These actions are part of a long and rich legacy of sports activism, which once again points to the potential of sports to create change.

Even more promising is the fact that the issues that plague athletes, from labor rights to harmful stereotypes to unfair compensation, run parallel to the most pressing political issues of our day. These parallels create an opportunity for athletes fighting for their rights to bolster similar movements outside of sports. For example, when Allyson Felix, Alysia Montano,and other athlete-mothers spoke out against Nike’s unjust maternity leave policy, they positioned their argument in the larger movement for paid maternity leave across the United States. That same strategy can be used for athletes’ labor rights and the larger unionization movement occurring across the United States or for stereotypes of athletes and the larger movement to address systemic discrimination or for fair compensation and the larger movement to increase the federal minimum wage

But it’s sports’ ability to create solidarity across demographic lines that make them an incredible space for grassroots organizing. Amateur travel sports allow young athletes to traverse the country and compete against a wide variety of teams, which exposes them to diverse people and perspectives at an early age. College sports bring players from around the world together, creating a tight-knit community based on a common desire: competitive success. And professional sports often occur on the international stage, with events like the Olympics gathering the world’s top athletes in one place to commune and celebrate their athletic excellence. In this way, sports’ ability to connect athletes across backgrounds makes them a potential catalyst for wide-scale social change, especially as athletes identify common struggles and develop plans to address those struggles together. The 1968 Olympic protests are case in point. 

Sports have incredible political power. They can be at the center of a revolution, but only if we are willing to stretch our imagination and see sports as a viable place for activism. Only if we stop seeing athletes as bodies meant to entertain and start seeing them as people with the capacity to thoughtfully and meaningfully engage in our democracy. Only if we empower and encourage athletes at all levels to use their voices to speak out against injustice. 

Let’s keep that in mind as we cheer on college athletes this month.

Caleb Dunson is a former co-opinion editor and current columnist for the News. Originally from Chicago, Caleb is a senior in Saybrook College majoring in Political Science and Economics. His column "What We Owe," runs monthly and "explores themes of collective responsibility at Yale and beyond." Contact him at caleb.dunson@yale.edu