Breaking Barriers

Not all social movements are fought in court or on the streets. Sometimes those battles can take place on a field or in an arena. Throughout history, sports has shown that it can go above and beyond a competition between teams or individual athletes and whether or not they win or lose.

We’ve seen athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson and Billie Jean King not only succeed in competitive sporting events, but also face social adversity and change the way some of society may have viewed people similar to them. Robinson, for example, endured waves of racial slurs being yelled at him by fans, managers and fellow players. Opposing players also tried to physically harm Robinson on the field, and through all of it he agreed to remain quiet and do nothing but take it.

Today we are primed for another athlete of their caliber given all of the social unrest that has taken place the past few years, and all of the conflict that has risen from the recent presidential election. There are many barriers that have yet to be fully broken in society, and sports can lead the way to that change.

Along with Ali, fellow boxing legend Mike Tyson identifies as Muslim and in the NBA, the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal also follow the religion. We have also been witness to soccer star Zinedine Zidane and two-time Grand Slam champion Marat Safin. Recently, NFL Pro Bowlers such as Aqib Talib of the Denver Broncos and Muhammad Wilkerson of the New York Jets have started to appear in the NFL. However, there is still a lot of room for Muslim athletes to make an impact in the sports world. There have only been a handful of Muslim NHL players, including current forward Nazem Kadri of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the first overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft Nail Yakupov. There has been but one Muslim player throughout MLB’s history; Sam Khalifa played three seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1980s. There are still plenty of American professional sports leagues that have yet to be witness to a transcending Muslim player, and in a time when many Muslim citizens are wrongly feared a few Muslim superstars could be very beneficial for our country.

We have also yet to see a superstar LGBTQIA+ athlete in American professional sports. Michael Sam came close as he was drafted by the then-St. Louis Rams in the 2014 NFL Draft. Caitlyn Jenner won the 1976 Olympics decathlon title nearly 40 years before her transition. There have been LGBTQIA+ athletes who have played in American professional sports, but none were open about their sexuality or gender identity until their retirement. No question that an LGBTQIA+ athlete who is open about their sexuality and/or gender identity would face a lot of adversity. There were questions regarding Sam’s presence in a locker room and how his teammates would feel changing in front of a gay player. A superstar LGBTQIA+ athlete would certainly help dispel any negative opinions of the presence of LGBTQIA+ members in sports, and perhaps in society in general.

There have also yet to be any women playing in major American professional sports leagues such as MLB, the NFL, the NHL and the NBA. There are separate sports leagues that give female athletes a chance to shine, such as the WNBA. But women have proved that they are more than capable of playing alongside men in professional sports.

The previously mentioned Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in a “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in 1973, one of the most famous tennis matches of all time. Manon Rhéaume appeared as a goalkeeper for the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning in preseason exhibition games in 1992 and 1993. Seventeen-year-old Jackie Mitchell struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, arguably the two greatest hitters of all time, in an exhibition game in 1931. Slowly, the gender line in professional American sports is beginning to blur. Kathryn Smith was hired by the Buffalo Bills as their special teams quality control coach prior to this season, the first full-time female coach in NFL history. Justine Siegal served as the Oakland Athletics’ guest instructor for their Instructional League Club in 2015, making her the first female coach in MLB history. She has also attended spring training alongside many MLB teams, including the New York Mets. The first full-time female NBA assistant is Becky Hammon, who has been with the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA since the 2014-15 season.

There have been controversies in the sports world regarding equal treatment of women, such as the question as to why the United States men’s national soccer team gets paid significantly more than the United States women’s national soccer team despite the women having much more success than the men. A female athlete consistently playing alongside male athletes in a popular American sports league is long overdue.

Society and sports have come a long way over time. The concept of an African American playing in professional sports used to be viewed with so much scrutiny, and now it’s no stranger than a white athlete playing professional sports. But there are still many barriers that have yet to be broken, and I firmly believe that one day they will. I hope to see more Muslim superstars as well as many LGBTQIA+ and women athletes succeed in professional American sports leagues. There is a lot of work to be done, but we are progressing more and more as a society and there is going to be a day when we will see people of all backgrounds competing against each other in all sports.