But in an America that is still reeling from a divisive presidential election cycle, where the rise of President Donald Trump catapulted heated debates over race and social issues into the mainstream, many athletes are becoming politically active in a way not seen in decades. And not everyone is happy about it.
“Sports is really no longer an escape from the real world that it used to be. Sports is a mirror of our society,” CNN Sports Analyst Christine Brennan said. “I think because Trump is so controversial and because the things he’s saying and doing run counter to what many people believe … athletes are finding their voice in a way that is reminiscent of the 1960s.”
A growing group of top tier athletes — from Super Bowl winners, basketball MVP’s, boxing champions, ballet dancers, Olympic medalists in soccer, figure skating and fencing, and sports legends like Billie Jean King and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — have formed a passionate chorus protesting the state of American politics.
Travel ban ignites fury
“… Even though I represent Team USA and I have that Olympic hardware, it doesn’t change how you look and how people perceive you,” she said. “Unfortunately, I know that people talk about this having a lot to do with these seven countries in particular, but I think the net is cast a little bit wider than we know. And I’m included in that as a Muslim woman who wears a hijab.”
CNN has reached out to the White House for comment and has not yet received a response.
“Basic reason for me is I don’t feel accepted in the White House,” McCourty said. “With the President having so many strong opinions and prejudices, I believe certain people might feel accepted there while others won’t.”
Back to the 60s
Kaepernick also faced criticism because he said there was no difference between voting for Trump or Clinton. He did not cast a ballot in 2016.
“It’s reminiscent of back in the day when Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were influencing entire movements of people with the stances they were taking and their words,” CNN Sports correspondent and former NFL player Coy Wire told CNN.
In the era of Martin Luther King Jr., when civil rights activists across America protested racial inequality, America saw a rise in activism that made its way into the world of sports.
One of the most notable examples is legendary boxer Ali’s refusal to join the US armed forces and fight in the Vietnam war, citing his Muslim religion.
“The same way John Carlos, Tommie Smith raised their black gloved fists in the ’68 Olympics in Mexico. The same way Muhammad Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam War. These are rights that Americans have,” he added.
Fist-raising is a symbol of solidarity and a symbol of the black power movement that dates back to the Black Panthers in the 60s and 70s.
And now, Smith is voicing his support for Kaepernick and others who are taking a stand.
“Back in 1968, “danger” was spelled the same way, felt the same way, and it could do the same harm to someone who’s standing out by him or herself against the evolution in racism … There is a sacrifice,” he added.
‘Black Lives Matter’ echoes on the field
Even before Trump and Kaepernick, athletes had begun to make political statements on and off the field, particularly on police brutality, reflecting a broader cultural shift.
Wire said that the rise of social media and an evolution within sports organizations like the NFL and the NBA, where coaches and owners are “more lenient” on players speaking out, have encouraged more athletes to take a stand on social and politics issues.
“Back in the early 2000s, when I first came into the NFL it was ‘do not talk about it, keep your head down.’ Basically, ‘just stick to sports, you’re an athlete,’ Wire said. “But towards the end of my career it started to trend towards ‘be smart, think before you click send on Twitter.'”
“We have to respect people’s Constitutional rights, we understand that,” Goodell said. “But for us, we’re all about patriotism.”
Silver reiterated this view in July, saying that while he didn’t think it was a good idea for members of the Minnesota Lynx to wear “Black Lives Matter” shirts before a game, players in the NBA and the WNBA have a right to express their views.
“I would greatly prefer that the players use the platform they’re given, social media, press conferences, media in locker rooms, however they want to do it, to make their political points of view be known,” Silver said.
Women’s rights reverberate in locker rooms
And figure skater Michelle Kwan, a five-time world champion, formally joined the Clinton campaign as an outreach coordinator, hoping to see the first woman president.
But when a 2005 hot mic video surfaced in October of Trump making derogatory remarks about women, the call for women’s rights in the sports world became louder.
“When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything,” Trump said in the 2005 tape.
Are Trump supporters afraid to speak out?
Some of Trump’s most outspoken supporters have come from the sports world, including Knight, who appeared at campaign rallies with Trump and was a surrogate for him on talk shows.
But Wire said that some athletes who back Trump may be wary about speaking out.
“I definitely think its going to test some dynamics within certain teams and organizations,” he said.
“Its not that I’ve experienced it personally, but I can put myself back in the cleats in the NFL locker room … (Protests are) going to force us to look at our teammates and say ‘that really means something to them,'” he added.
Brennan said that while it’s “hard to know” if some Trump supporters have kept quiet, “if we are to judge from Curt Schilling’s experiences and his opinion then perhaps that is the same.”
The New England Patriots, who won Super Bowl 51 last week, have been linked to Trump due to the President’s friendship with quarterback Tom Brady.
But the five-time Super Bowl champ, who faced controversy during the 2016 election when a “Make America Great Again” hat was spotted in his locker, has been evasive when asked about Trump, keeping his comments non-political.
But the football star’s wife, model Gisele Bundchen, bluntly denied those reports in a social media exchange.
“Gisele I head you and Tom were backing Trump! Is that true?” an Instagram user asked.
“NO!” Bundchen responded.
However, following Trump’s win, the President said at a pre-inaugural dinner that Brady and Patriots owner Robert Kraft called to congratulate him.
While he did not deny it, Brady played down the claim during an interview, saying, “I call a lot of people.”
“I have called him, yes, in the past,” Brady said. “Sometimes he calls me. Sometimes I call him. But, again, that’s been someone I’ve known. I always try to keep it in context because for 16 years you know someone before maybe he was in the position that he was in. He’s been very supportive of me for a long time. It’s just a friendship. I have a lot of friends. I call a lot of people.”