By Danny Priest
SEAT at the Table rolled on Tuesday night with Natalie Léger and Danielle Clough presenting their session “‘Shut up and Dribble’ Social Justice, Politics and Sport: Tools for Preventing the Dehumanization of Athletes.”
Dehumanizing athletes is not a new issue in today’s society, but it is one that has moved into more of a spotlight with recent social justice issues in the country.
“The big goal is to be talking about the intersection of social justice, politics and sport. Really, what I want to demonstrate today, and what Danielle and I want for all of you to take away, is how this intersection exists and how it cannot be separated,” Léger told the 100 plus attendees on the Zoom session.
“We want to leave you all with tools for preventing the dehumanization of athletes, and making it incredibly clear the level of power that we all have as people who are connected to sport in some sort of way.”
Léger began her presentation by showing a few different visuals. She first highlighted the disproportionate ratio of Black athletes in both the college and professional ranks, compared to the amount of white coaches in the sports.
She then highlighted how much money some football programs in the BIG10 make for their community. Among the list of teams highlighted were Penn State University — who generate around $130 million dollars per season — and the University of Iowa who generate about $14.5 million in revenue for a single home game.
Léger emphasized that it is the hard, unpaid work of predominantly Black athletes that are keeping these overwhelmingly white communities a float.
“We know similarly to the BIG10 that the U.S. economy has always been based off the back of enslaved Black and brown individuals who make no money and don’t get to live off of the profits of their work,” Léger said.
“We create situations where we have this discourse between Black and brown individuals, as well as white individuals that creates a suspicion of others and this fear of other people.”
Léger went on to explain that balanced communities do not need to rely on college athletics to thrive, and this should be a standard all communities strive for.
During the presentation, Léger gave her own definition of dehumanization that was unique to the subject matter at hand.
“Dehumanization is the denial of full humanist in others and the cruelty and suffering that accompanies it. Our practical definition refers to it as the viewing and treatment of other persons as though they lack the mental capacities that are commonly attributed to human-beings,” she explained.
She went on to explain that not viewing athletes as anything beyond players on a field at an athletic event is both dangerous and harmful.
“What happens here is we stop seeing each other as human beings, we stop seeing each other as people with the same problems we have. They don’t have life stories and anything good, healthy, beneficial that’s going..,” she said.
“When we stop seeing each other as human beings who are just trying to get by and live healthy lives, just like the rest of us, it’s much easier for us to be separated and divided by people in power and manipulated in a way to where we become less safe.”
Léger broke down a pattern that athlete’s go through. First, they become a product based on their skills that allows them to be marketed and traded like stocks. Then, their legitimate skills and knowledge become undervalued and that leads to their worth being decided by powers already in place.
For those in attendance on the call, the key takeaway was that there are ways to help out and be a part of the solution to stop dehumanizing athletes.
On a macro level, Léger encouraged individuals to support legislation and policy that allows athletes to be compensated for their worth. She also supported diversifying economies in small towns in America to help address issues of racism and white supremacy, and instead foster inclusion and safety in communities.
On a more minor level, Léger mentioned adapting vocabulary for describing athletes, increasing opportunities for athlete’s voices to be heard, being more empathetic towards athletes, and questioning yourself and others on unjust beliefs.
“If there’s anything that I hope all of you take away from this discussion, it’s that we need to be intentional in how we speak about sport. We have to stop pretending like sport just happens in this isolated bubble,” Léger said.
“Change is a team sport. We have to work together to get this done… we need to find our community and just like with a team sport, you have to find your role. If you’re a coach you’ve heard that before, if you’re an athlete you’ve heard that before. Find your role in this fight so we can build a better place for the athletes and the people who work within sport.”
Clough also reminded those in attendance that sometimes the best course of action is no action at all.
“For those of us who identify as white and want to be helpful, and want to promote social justice, I think sometimes finding your role is sitting back and being a by-stander. (Still), finding ways to speak up and speak out, but also knowing when it’s okay to sit back and let the people who experience certain situations really speak out. You can be really, really impactful and not actually be at the top of the podium, so to speak.”
SEAT at the Table will be continuing throughout the remainder of the week with more lessons and education on fostering inclusion and diversity at Springfield College and beyond.
Graphic Courtesy of Jack Margaros