Filipino athletes

4 tips on athlete advocacy and activism

Mickey Ingles

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4 tips on athlete advocacy and activism
It’s a scary world of trolls out there, so here’s a handy guide for athletes who choose to speak up

Pandemic-related sports bubbles aside, athletes don’t live in a bubble. They are humans and citizens first, athletes second. They’re not robots. They’ll have their opinions on issues. But should they speak up about it or should they just “shut up and dribble”?

Yes, they should speak up. 

But before doing so, here’s a handy guide to consider. After all, it’s a scary world of trolls out there. 

Don’t force it

Forced advocates don’t help the cause. If you’re an athlete, choose an advocacy or an issue close to your heart and your experience. Whether it’s pushing for stopping abuse against doggos, advocating for gender equality, promoting safe spaces in sports, or increasing voter turn-out in the next elections, there’s something for everyone. 

Just because the advocacy is the “cool thing to post about” or it’s getting all the social media mileage doesn’t mean you should automatically join it. If you don’t feel it, don’t join. Don’t let anyone force you to speak up, especially if you don’t know anything about the cause or are uncomfortable with it. Peer pressure? That’s so high school. 

In the end, it’s about sincerity. People will know if you’re being sincere or simply joining the bandwagon. 

Be informed about the advocacy

If an advocacy or an issue does pique your interest, then learn about it. Know before speaking. No one likes a mema athlete-activist. 

While the internet is a wonderful resource to get your feet wet in certain issues, it can get a bit toxic with all the noise and the fake news. The best way to learn and be informed is to consult experts.

An expert is closer than you think, and it’s all a matter of sifting through your network and sending a message. Experts are more than willing to set aside time to help explain issues to interested advocates.

Here’s an example close to home. A few months ago, a number of athletes actually messaged me regarding the Constitutional issues surrounding the Anti-Terror Act. We had a fun online “explainer” meeting, and everyone became more knowledgeable about the subject after. 

(I know, you’re thinking, “wow, expert ka?” Well, not really, but I do teach Constitutional Law in the Ateneo Law School. Lelz.)

Be informed about the consequences

Knowing about the issue is just one side of the coin. Athlete-advocates should also know the consequences of speaking up. It’s a (sad) fact that athletes who speak up might lose a sponsorship deal, a place on the team, or even their own lives for speaking up. There are legal and financial considerations. 

If you’re an informed athlete, of course, these shouldn’t stop you from pushing for change if you feel strongly about an issue, but it also doesn’t mean that you should go forward blindly and unaware of the consequences. 

Ask a lawyer to check your contracts for any clauses that might affect your advocacy moving forward. Consult your agent or manager as well. As an aside, it’s essential to have a close and supportive inner circle to speak the facts to you straight up. Only then can you make an informed decision.

In a recent LawInSport webinar on athlete activism, I asked David West, a two-time NBA champion, what to advise athletes who are a bit iffy about speaking up because they might lose sponsorships for being “too political.” 

His advice was a practical one – speaking up actually creates more engagement because people will know more about you, and you’ll get to connect with others who wouldn’t otherwise care (example: “Oh! I know nothing about volleyball but she loves doggos like me too! Following!”).

In a business where engagement matters, this is huge. On the flip side, if your brand doesn’t like it or if you lose some fans because you spoke up, then maybe those relationships weren’t worth it in the first place.

David West also gave this golden nugget of wisdom: find someone to help you refine your message. A lot can get lost in translation, especially when you’re trying to fit your message into a tweet. Consult someone who can help you get your message across as clearly as possible. 

Language matters. Words matter

Get your brand, team, and league to join in.

There will be brands, teams, and leagues that will steer clear of certain advocacies and bind their athletes to do the same through contracts or league rules. That’s their legal prerogative. 

With that said, there might be some wiggle room to negotiate for some safe space for athletes to speak up, such as what the NBA did for BLM and racial equality. In fact, athletes should get involved in the decision-making process, as these decisions ultimately affect them.

The ideal, however, is not to have sanctions looming over athletes’ heads if they do pick up a cause. Entities should respect the right of their athletes to speak up by not sanctioning them in the first place, especially if these are part of well-informed advocacies. Morality clauses are well and good, but these should not be adversely called upon when athletes make informed decisions to speak up. 

Hopefully, these 4 tips are not limited to athletes. While they do have considerable influence, so do we. We all have a voice. So, pick a cause. Inform yourself. Join the discussion. –

Ignatius Michael “Mickey” Ingles is an associate in The Law Firm of Ingles, Laurel and Calderon. He is also a full-time professor teaching Emerging Issues in Sports Law, Artificial Intelligence, Robots, and the Law, and Constitutional Law at the Ateneo Law School (ALS). He was the starting right winger of the Ateneo football team that won 3 straight UAAP men’s football championship from 2004-2006. After graduating salutatorian in ALS, Ingles topped the Philippine Bar in 2012 and then obtained his L.L.M. from the Georgetown University Law Center in 2016. He is a licensed attorney in the Philippines and New York.  

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