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Athletes as Advocacy, Activism and Accompliceship

By Eva Bošnjak (they/them)

Over the past several years, we have seen an increase in conversations around allyship and advocacy in many arenas, we have seen many leaders and athletes leading the change and taking up the role of ally. But what does it really mean to be an ally?

Fundamentally, an ally is an individual in a position of privilege or power who makes consistent efforts to understand and support equity-deserving or marginalized groups. Ally is not an identity an individual can claim. Rather, it is an ongoing practice of taking action, becoming self-aware, and taking accountability to unlearn biases (Clemens, 2017). While allyship is a great place to start, I like to encourage folks to work on becoming an accomplice instead.

Accompliceship is a step beyond allyship and involves moving into the realm of advocacy. An accomplice uses their own privilege to challenge systemic oppression at the risk of their personal comfort and/or position (e.g., job) (Clemens, 2017). I like thinking of accomplices as co-conspirators of making systemic change.

Accomplices are vitally important for making systemic change as it can be quite difficult for folks from marginalized groups to be advocates for themselves. As an example, let’s take a look at the recent Hershey Canada campaign for International Women’s Day. Fae Johnstone, who is a trans woman, was one of five women featured on Hershey’s limited release chocolate bars. After the campaign went public, Johnstone was met with an onslaught of online harassment and hate. Unfortunately, these examples also carry into the realm of sport. A notable example is when Colin Kaepernick, a Black man, used his public platform and kneeled for the national anthem during several NFL games throughout the 2016 season to protest racial injustice and police brutality. Despite his professional accomplishments and status as a high-profile athlete, Kaepernick faced public backlash and his career was greatly impacted.

I highlight the experiences of Fae Johnstone and Colin Kaepernick to show what can happen when people from marginalized groups advocate for themselves. Right now, we need folks to step up and be accomplices because it is dangerous for marginalized people to be publicly advocating for their own communities. For example, it is safer for cisgender people to advocate for trans rights, and they are much less likely to experience retaliation when speaking out.

Recently, PK Subban, an NHL player and public advocate for combating anti-Black racism, spoke negatively about the NHL’s Pride night initiatives. He said, “we cannot push everyone to be an activist, we need to be very careful. I feel people pick and choose what they want to talk about and I don’t like it when we put the onus on athletes to be activists”. Despite the need for more people to take on the role of accomplice, there appears to be a lack of understanding around what needs to be done. To this day, only one NHL player under contract has ever publicly come out as gay, which clearly indicates that not enough has been done to address the ongoing homophobia and transphobia in the NHL. Addressing various forms of systemic discrimination should not be something that players are able to opt in or out of.

In my opinion, players who have a public platform and are making huge profits from playing a sport that is deeply entrenched in racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and sexism have a responsibility to act and do something to address all those systems of oppression, not just the ones they want. To meaningfully address systems of oppression, everyone must step up and do something, not just the people who are directly impacted by those systems. Advocacy work must be intersectional rather than focused on one specific identity because oppressive systems intersect with one another and create multiple layers of injustice and oppression. As scholar Amia Srinivasan (2021) has said, “any liberation movement that only focuses on what all members of the relevant group have in common will best serve the members of the group who are least oppressed.”

Inclusion will not happen on its own. Rather, it will result from repeated, deliberate actions by a collective group of people. Moving forward, I encourage folks to examine the types of privileges they hold and to become accomplices to marginalized groups that they are not part of. I believe that change is possible. We all just need to put in the work.


Clemens, C. (2017). Ally or accomplice? The language of activism. Learning for Justice.

Hernandez, J. (2021). Luke Prokop comes out as gay and makes NHL history. NPR.

Kennedy, I. (2023). PK Subban’s LGBTQ+ comments divide hockey community. Deadspin.

Srinivasan, A. (2021). The right to sex: Feminism in the twenty-first century. Farr, Straus and Giroux.