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Buffs' Walton Stresses Importance Of Athletes Utilizing Their Voices

Feb 10, 2021

BOULDER — In an era when athletes at all levels are starting to hear a chorus of "Stick to sports," Colorado senior basketball player Dallas Walton believes it is more important than ever for athletes to use their voices to influence societal change.

It is not easy, especially for African-American athletes who have taken up social justice causes. 

But now — more than ever — Walton believes it is imperative that athletes utilize the platform they have been given to address issues at the forefront of society in America.

"It is important for all athletes to be vocal about social issues if they believe in them," Walton said. "It's important for all athletes to acknowledge that society does put athletes in boxes, and we have a responsibility to use our voices."

And, he added, in a day and age when America is undergoing dramatic social change, Walton believes that responsibility is particularly compelling.

"For African-American athletes, especially in 2020, when there's rhetoric like 'shut up and dribble,' when some people say they shouldn't be talking about other things outside their sport — it's more important now that the conversations are central around that," Walton said.

Walton speaks from a platform built on a solid foundation of his studies. An outstanding student, he is majoring in Strategic Communication while also obtaining a minor in Business/Information Science/Sports Media. 

Part of his classroom work has included studying the impact  sports have had in America when it comes to opening doors for societal change.

"Sports in America have always reflected society's views," Walton said. "When you look at baseball and football — when those sports weren't as inclusive, society wasn't as inclusive in America. You had Jim Crow laws, segregation in schools and sports. It wasn't until sports gave inclusivity a chance that society followed."

Indeed, the integration of professional sports no doubt helped set the stage for a societal shift. 

But, as Walton wryly noted, integration in sports was seldom born out of purely altruistic intentions.

"What's lost in that movement is that it was economically driven," Walton said. "Having Black athletes on your team meant more winning and thus more money … But while the motivation might not have been pure, the end result was more inclusivity in society as a whole."

Indeed, some high-profile collegiate programs, such as Kentucky basketball under Adolph Rupp and Alabama football under Bear Bryant, refused to integrate long after pro sports had made the move. It wasn't until they realized they were falling behind that they grudgingly changed — and some of those programs remained segregated until the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Walton also noted that integration in professional sports by no means meant acceptance. The recent death of home run king Hank Aaron was a harsh reminder of the trials he faced as he chased Babe Ruth's record in the early 1970s.

"Aaron had death threats when he was getting close to the record," Walton said. "In terms of American history, that was not very long ago. Acknowledging the accomplishment of a Black athlete breaking the record of an icon was not easy for a lot of society to accept at that time."

Now, with such causes as Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights continuing to move to the forefront of societal debate, Walton believes athletes have a duty to step forward if they believe in those causes.

In other words, "shut up and dribble" is not acceptable.

"I look at sports in American history as being the push on society to be more inclusive and diverse," he said. "I don't think there's any doubt about that — and it's only growing. For athletes today, it's a bigger platform and a bigger audience, and that a bigger chance that society is willing to accept the change that is happening."

There is also another part of the equation, Walton said. When it comes to utilizing their voices, athletes have a responsibility to make sure they are seen as more than "just" people who play sports.

"Sometimes you have to take a step away from the environment," he said. "Sometimes you look at athletes' social media pages and it's all about the sport — it's a singular focus. Sometimes it's the image that you portray to the public that matters."

That image, Walton stressed, needs to be a well-rounded picture.

"Being more than a basketball player to the public means you also have to portray yourself as more than a basketball player," he said. "Otherwise, you get put in a box, whether you want it or not."

That means looking at the world from other vantage points — and then studying how to address the issues that are important.

"It's good to take a step away once in a while and realize the world is more than sports," he said with a laugh. "No doubt, sports have a big impact on our communities and our society — but you need to ask yourself, 'How can I use that as a tool to portray other things that I believe need attention?' When you can do that, you can have an impact."