Soledad O’Brien says Black athletes can’t opt-out of speaking on social justice issues

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Black athletes have been getting a lot of attention since Colin Kaepernick took a knee.  Whether they speak out or stay silent on social justice issues, the world is looking to see where they stand.

At the recent Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health Sports Ball Gala, a celebration of the legacy of tennis champion and activist Arthur Ashe, journalist and honoree Soledad O’Brien weighed in on whether black athletes have the option to stay on the sidelines in real life.

“I’m not sure African American athletes just get to be athletes,” O’Brien says in an exclusive interview with theGrio. “Sometimes they are in such a rarified air, in such unusual positions, especially Arthur Ashe, where they kind of have to leverage their platform and I think he did that incredibly well.”

“[Ashe] took what was fantastic tennis acumen and had this platform by which he brought everyone around to these other issues he cared about –and we’re seeing a lot of black athletes do that today. I don’t think a lot of black athletes just get to say ‘No man, I’m just going to be an athlete. I opt out.’ I don’t think that the bulk do.”

O’Brien says while many of the issues aren’t new, a new generation has been given the opportunity to speak up.

“I think they’re living in America today, and obviously we are having a lot of challenged conversations about race, class, and opportunity, and white supremacy…

So, I’m encouraged to see many using their platforms and jumping in to direct the discussion the way that they feel that it needs to go and to be a voice for people who really don’t get a platform very often.”


The annual SportsBall 2017, Black Tie & Sneakers Gala of the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health, honors individuals and organizations making significant contributions to urban communities in the areas of health, education, medical research, community service, and philanthropy.

Other honorees included Robert Gore, MD, an ER Physician who also started an anti-violence program called KAVI (Kings Against Violence Initiative).

“We are focusing on education of the next generation of activists to take the helm with much needed change within our healthcare system,” says Gore.

For Gore, Arthur Ashe was the perfect example of an athlete who stepped up beyond his role.

“I think we tend not to associate athletes with being some of these humanitarians revolving around health care, but Arthur Ashe was the epitome, and really set the stage for many other activists who are athletes that come after him, ” says Gore.


The event’s host Cheryl Wills, NY1 News anchor and author, also spoke about Ashe’s legacy.

He took a stand and it was not a popular thing to do back in those days. We can take a lesson from Arthur Ashe on how to face these indignities and injustices with grace. You don’t have to be wild, you can just simply say ‘this will not stand.’”

This is the danger of not knowing your history because we have had athletes who have been taking a stand for a long time. This is truly not new, maybe taking a knee may be new but speaking against injustice when you’re an athlete is not new.”

Born in Richmond, Virginia, Arthur Ashe became the first, and is still the only, African-American male tennis player to win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. He is also the first African-American man to be ranked as the No. 1 tennis player in the world. He died after contracting AIDS during a blood transfusion.

The funds raised at the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health Sports Ball support the Ashe Institute’s innovative community health education programs and research initiatives. Arthur Ashe founded the institute in 1992, just two months before his death from AIDS, in response to the disproportionate amount of illness and death in urban communities from preventable diseases.

For more information about the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health go to: