Katrina Hale, '23, by Westhampton Lake

Katrina Hale, '23

April 14, 2023

By Hannah Burke, Jepson School of Leadership Studies student assistant

To protest American racial injustices and policy brutality against Blacks and other people of color, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick famously knelt during the playing of the national anthem in the 2016 National Football League (NFL) preseason. Soon, other football players, and then other athletes, were emulating his actions, igniting a heated national debate about the relationship between professional sports and activism.

Self-described activist and sports fan Katrina Hale, ’23, explores this relationship in her Jepson School of Leadership Studies honors thesis, “Offense or Defense: Leadership of the NBA and NFL in Response to Athlete Activism.” She examines how the NBA’s and NFL’s respective cultures, structures, and leadership impact the way the two organizations respond to their athletes’ activism. Dr. Thad Williamson is her thesis advisor. 

“A lot of people say that sports and politics shouldn’t mix,” Hale said, “but I think it is important recognize that social issues are going to come up in these spaces.” Basketball and football dominate entertainment choices, athletic interests, and social groups, she added, and can provide a space for activism if allowed. 

When NBA and NFL athletes take a political or social stand, the reaction of the organizations’ leaders can have a big impact. 

“These leaders make the decisions about whether their players are fired or have their pay lowered,” the leadership studies major said, “They decide whether they will support their players and allow them these freedoms—freedoms everyone should have.”

In the wake of Kaepernick’s protest, a study Hale cites in her thesis, some team leaders chose to lower the pay of players who stood with Kaepernick or simply not hire them. Kaepernick himself has not played for the NFL since 2017, likely getting shut out as a result of his protest.

“A higher percentage of people who participated in activism received lower pay relative to those who didn’t participate in activism,” the senior said. 

The NBA response to the 2020 Milwaukee Bucks walkout—which protested the police shooting of 29-year-old Black man Jacob Blake—was very different from the NFL response to Kaepernick’s protest. This is partly due to the history and culture of the leagues, according to Hale. 

“The NFL leadership has been a bit more performative, so its response hasn’t been as effective as the response of the NBA leadership,” she said. “The NBA is a little more politically engaged and does more than just put social or political messages on jerseys.”

Ultimately, the NBA and NFL are workplaces and not the only arena where leaders can play an important role in activism, Hale said.

“Whether they lead a large corporation, a university, or a sports league, I hope to see more leaders become open to activism than they have been in the past.”