HAMMOND — Activism and social media have changed the landscape of sports, so much so that speaking up for one’s beliefs can cost an athlete a job.
Kevin R. Rome, president of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, said the United States was not prepared for the protest started by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
What Americans need, Rome said Tuesday in a speech at Purdue University Northwest’s Hammond campus, is tolerance and understanding.
"Sports figures are human, too, and not immune to the social issues we face," Rome said. "Those who speak out should not be ostracized."
Kaepernick, recently named Citizen of the Year by GQ magazine, stood up for what he believes, Rome said.
"Because he spoke up, he is not playing in the NFL. Is it just? Is it fair?"
Citing the protests of Kaepernick and former pro basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf over racial inequality, Rome said their messages have been convoluted in a society growing more divisive.
College campuses, Rome said, provide a "fertile ground for social progression and activism," adding students have the right to express their beliefs.
People can always disagree, Rome said, but people of differing views should be able to share their thoughts.
Society, Rome said, needs "to understand you have the right to be you and who you are."
Sports have a place in a democratic society as teammates reflect diversity and different backgrounds. Institutions of higher education, Rome said, can help foster tolerance and understanding.
Although he doubts Kaepernick will return to the NFL this season, he would invite the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback to his campus to address social protests and "how to teach our country to deal with a very sensitive issue."
In the meantime, Rome offers colleges and universities these suggestions: provide research to change the climate on response to protests; create case studies to chronicle this point in time when peaceful protests are being attacked; illuminate the issue of how tolerance is taught on campus and undergird weak areas of tolerance.
"We have a responsibility to acknowledge that [Kaepernick] has the right to express freedom of speech. It’s important to our country," Rome said. "We cannot not allow our students to have a voice."
Offering 13 interscholastic sports, Purdue Northwest is in its first year as an NCAA Division II school.
"We support our students’ right to express themselves," said PNW Athletic Director Richard Costello, citing respect as a core value at the school.