Black Lives Matter regained the spotlight in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. However, activism in sports is far older than Black Lives Matter. Colin Kaepernick knelt during the National Anthem in 2016, but Muhammad Ali refused to go to Vietnam after being drafted in 1967. Even earlier, Jesse Owens won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics to protest Hitler’s Nazi ideology. Sports has always been a center of activism.
Amid the current push toward racial justice in the United States, national attention has once again centered on athletes’ activism. Here’s how far this activism goes and how it’s impacting sports and sportsbooks.
The Wide Spectrum Of Sports Activism
Sports activism takes any forms today. However, there are a few types of figures who pop up repeatedly. There are individual players, activist leagues, and new converts.
No name elicits stronger opinions than Colin Kaepernick. His National Anthem protest sparked both powerful opposition and support. (Although, the “first” time he sat on the bench wasn’t the first time he’d done it. It was the first time that journalists took interest in it.) He sat–and later knelt–during the National Anthem to protest racial injustice in the United States. Kaepernick eventually left the 49ners–though they likely would’ve cut him anyway–and continued his social justice work outside the NFL.
The NFL has taken a fresh interest in him because of the recent push to embrace Black Lives Matter. Roger Goodell issued two stunning statements in June 2020:
- He regretted not listening to the point of earlier protests.
- He would welcome Colin Kaepernick’s return to play if a team signed him.
Whether the NFL signs Kaepernick remains to be seen. Some players, like Michael Thomas, won’t take the NFL’s social justice commitments seriously unless a team signs Kaepernick. But in the meantime, Kaepernick has become a symbol for Black Lives Matter and will likely be a barometer for the NFL’s commitment to Black Lives Matter.
Individual icons come and go, but some leagues have a pattern of taking public stances on social justice issues. The WNBA dedicated its entire 2020 season to social justice. It’s organizing spaces for ongoing conversations led by players and the WNBA’s new Social Justice Council. WNBA fans can expect podcasts, virtual roundtables, and other events covering implicit bias, systemic racism, and other issues.
But that’s only the WNBA’s most recent commitment to social justice. They were actively protesting in 2016 after the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. About a month and a half later, they knelt in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. WNBA teams also support other social justice causes, including sexual assault prevention, LGBT youth support, and Planned Parenthood funding. Individual players do the work on the ground, but they’re publicly supported by the league. That’s not something NFL players can confidently say, and that’s what sets the WNBA apart.
Most people who fall under this umbrella would refrain from calling themselves activists. Most onlookers wouldn’t call them activists, either.
Crucially, none of the players under this heading got their initial responses to Black Lives Matter right. However, these players are an important part of the social justice landscape. They show how conversations can convert critics one individual at a time.
Drew Brees was an outspoken critic of Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling ever since 2016. However, Brees faced public backlash from team members, fans, and New Orleans residents after his 2020 criticisms. The backlash amid national protests and public admonition from other professional athletes. The onslaught of criticism must’ve been convincing, because Brees issued an apology the next day.
Based on a few of his teammates’ reactions, Brees’ apology seems genuine. Not everyone in the NFL accepted it, but Brees’ changed mind is an important development in the NFL social conscience. It means the climate within the NFL not only allows players to discuss racial issues. It also demands white players, coaches, and staff members educate themselves about these issues.
Drew Brees is far from a Black Lives Matter activist. He is, however, evidence of a major zeitgeist shift in the NFL. If he is sincere–and the NFL’s stance on BLM is serious–then a long-term cultural change could be coming to the NFL.
The Bottom Line: Sports Are Political
Whether individual players or entire leagues elevate issues, professional sports are far from politically neutral. Racial issues are at the forefront of sports activism now, but sex, gender, and LGBT rights have been elevated too. Sports fans and sports bettors will not be able to escape political activism in sports.
What Does Activism Mean For Sportsbooks?
Since sports are affected by activism, sportsbooks are too. There are a few ways that sportsbooks have already adapted to the current wave of activism in sports. However, there are changes that could still happen depending on upcoming player decisions.
Current Sportsbook Effects
Bettors may think the renewed discussions about Colin Kaepernick’s potential return is a prop bet waiting to happen. They’d be right. SBK set odds on whether Colin Kaepernick will be on an NFL roster for Week 1 of the NFL season:
Based on this prop bet, sportsbooks don’t seem to have faith in long-term changes within the NFL. Sportsbooks are betting on the status quo remaining in place during the 2020 season. But the odds are always against change. If the NFL–and other sports leagues–commit to change based on player feedback, more power to them.
And more power to the bettors who’ll get great odds for betting on systemic change.
At his height, Colin Kaepernick was a strong quarterback. If a team signs him, it could force sportsbooks to change odds across the NFL season. It’s unlikely to make underdogs and favorites switch spots. However, it could make a difference in lines with close odds. (-110/-110 moneylines pop up every so often.)
Players deciding not to play could similarly change odds. Before Mississippi removed the Confederate battle flag from its state flag, running back Kylin Hill threatened not to play unless Mississippi changed its state flag. Mississippi did change it, so Kylin Hill is in.
However, other athletes have made similar threats in unresolved conflicts. In June 2020, president of America First Students at Kansas State, Jaden McNeil, tweeted racist remarks about George Floyd. In the wake of those remarks, college athletes across K-State threatened to boycott events and not play unless:
- Kansas State implemented an anti-racism policy.
- Jaden McNeil faces consequences for his tweets.
Kansas State created new policies but took no action against McNeil. If athletes follow through on their threats, college sport lines could change drastically. Individual players abstaining from playing would tweak odds within games. However, whole teams refusing to play would eliminate betting lines, forcing sportsbooks to issue refunds on those lines. Those are bigger impacts than new prop bets.
The Big Picture Of Sports Activism And Sports Betting
Sports provide athletes a massive platform to advocate for causes important to them. (Why critics ever thought sports was a “safe-space” from politics is unclear.) It’s an ecosystem of the current discourse, where viewers can see the range of opinions. They may even see minds change in real time.
Sportsbooks monitor these developments carefully to calculate odds that are reasonably fair. House edge aside, sportsbooks are pretty good representations of the likelihood of certain events occurring in sports. Normally, sportsbooks calculate odds on teams winning or making a point spread. But prop bets on behaviors are fair game, too. Bets on Kaepernick’s return suggest the NFL’s status quo will remain in place, despite public outcry and player criticism.
Whether bettors agree with this wave of social justice activism or not, bettors will see its impacts in their favorite sportsbooks. These developments are important for bettors to watch so they can make informed bets. Especially if they’re betting on any of their favorite leagues to not only change their views, but also take concrete steps to implement change.