LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick are leaders in the sports activist movement. But athletes from earlier times set the stage. Tennis legend Arthur Ashe is almost as well-known for his activism as he is for his legendary career on the court. James, Kaepernick, and other current stars can learn from Ashe’s history of making change.
Arthur Ashe’s tennis career
Ashe broke barriers in the tennis world, becoming the first Black player to join the U.S. Davis Cup team in 1963. He was also the first Black man to win the U.S. Open. Ashe ended his pro career with 76 singles titles (44 are listed by the ATP).
Additionally, the Asheville native won three Grand Slam titles, the 1970 Australian Open, and 1975 Wimbledon. Ashe reached No. 1 in the world rankings in 1968. He also won two Grand Slam doubles titles and was on four championship Davis Cup squads.
Ashe’s activism off the courts
Ashe maximized his fame to create change in America and South Africa, as History.com reports. The tennis star grew up poor in the segregated South. So he used his clout to expand educational and employment opportunities for disadvantaged youths in the area. Ashe also was an activist for AIDS awareness; the disease eventually claimed his life.
On the world stage, Ashe did what he could to break racial barriers in South Africa and end apartheid. In 1983, he teamed up with singer and fellow activist Harry Belafonte to form Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid. The organization pushed for sanctions and embargoes against the South African government.
Ashe’s activities and protests led to his arrest outside the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C., in 1985. As time went on, Ashe’s activism expanded to other areas, including gender equality and fair treatment for Haitian refugees.
Ashe’s activism compared to today’s athletes
The world was different in Ashe’s prime than it is now. It shows in how he protested compared to today’s athletes, as the Tampa Bay Times reports. Ashe often took to the college lecture circuit, speaking to students to help spread his message. The tennis icon also wrote editorials addressing social issues for the Washington Post and other newspapers.
Ashe’s writing went beyond editorials, as he also penned A Hard Road to Glory, a three-volume history of Black athletes. He even went further than that. Ashe willingly sacrificed his own freedom for his causes, being arrested several times at protests.
Thanks to social media, athletes like James and Kaepernick easily have platforms that reach tens of millions of people. They also use their TV presence to share their messages with their fans. James, Kaepernick, and so many other beloved athletes wear apparel during interviews and press conferences to show support for the causes they back. When allowed by their leagues, they’ve written messages on their shoes or other parts of uniforms.
James was also a leader in the NBA players’ decision to postpone playoff games to protest racial injustice. And the move was copied by players in other sports. Kaepernick also led the way for other athletes to silently protest by taking a knee during the national anthem.