Yao Williams | Athletes make their voices heard in turbulent year

With the NBA season set to resume this month, Yao Williams, head of international business at Athletes First Partners, argues that NBA stars – and other athletes – have never had a greater opportunity to build meaningful relationships with brands.

With all of the upheaval in the front half of 2020, we are seeing a fast-growing trend of people speaking up and speaking out about injustices all over the world. Nowhere is that more prevalent than in sport. Athletes of all stages and stripes are using their own voices and platforms to push for change. Shutting up and dribbling is simply no longer an option.

While the levers driving the push for greater civic and social engagement in the US – George Floyd, the pandemic, mass unemployment – are new, the concept of athletes taking more control of their own voice and destiny has been developing for some time. This is certainly not new in message, but it is more expansive in opportunity.

Back in 2017, a new, more socially-engaged era of NBA players stood up as a union and took control of their own name, image and likeness (NIL) rights, which were previously controlled by the NBA.

This essentially meant that the players now had more say over their own brand and, more importantly, their ability to monetise their own rights. The transition of the players union owning their rights has been empowering for all 450 players in the league, as brands look to the collective for new and innovative ways to tell their stories.

In the three years since that ground-breaking move, we are seeing a continual trend towards athletes holding more control over their own rights.

The NIL debate in college athletics has been in the spotlight for more than a year now, hurtling toward a conclusion that will – in some shape or form – grant these athletes the ability to monetise their individual brands.

Esports athletes have made attempts to gain collective control of their rights. German athletes have led the way in gaining more marketing rights at the Olympic level. All of these developments are a result of athletes using the power of their collective voice and their platforms to push for change.

And, now, here we are – in a time which calls for the loudest voices in the room to step forward. Athletes globally are engaging with consumers and brands and causes, using their platform, and making a difference. NFL players taking a collective stance that pushed the NFL to take action.

NBA players coming together with the league to place Black Lives Matter messaging on team arenas. WNBA great Maya Moore pressing pause on a wildly successful career to focus on finding justice for a wrongfully incarcerated black man. Footballers across Europe taking a knee, or with Black Lives Matter added to their kit. More than 170 black MLS players forming a group named Black Players for Change to give black players a voice and assist in making systemic change both inside and outside of the game.

Likewise, some of the world’s most powerful brands are using their power to engage audiences. Every once in a while, those two forces come together in a most powerful way.


  • Bubba Wallace, the Black Nascar driver who ignited a nation-wide movement resulting in major changes to the sport including the banning of the Confederate flag, recently partnered with Beats-by-Dre. The pairing of an athlete with a prominent voice of social change with a brand that embodies the power of youth and pop culture.
  • Colin Kaepernick, the originator of the take-a-knee movement to fight police brutality, has not only partnered with Nike and their well-known ads. He has recently also partnered with Beats on his Know Your Rights Camp initiative; the camp’s mission is to advance the liberation and well-being of black and brown communities and elevate the next generation of change leaders.
  • Natasha Cloud, an outspoken advocate for fighting racial injustices affecting the black community, recently announced her partnership with Converse, making her the first WNBA player to join the company’s new Converse Hoops roster. Converse’s partnership with Cloud to fight racial injustice is just the beginning; they have also made a $25,000 donation to an unnamed organization in Philadelphia, and plan to release a film that further epitomizes Cloud’s demand for change.

Overall, if you are a brand trying to find an authentic way to move the needle, utilising athletes may be the smartest way to cut through the clutter. Fans have been searching for ways to consume content around their favorite athlete and, as the on-the-field and off-the-field lines continue to blur, their voices continue to lead the way. So, if you are a brand trying to make a lasting impact, consider integrating some of the most powerful influencers in society is a great place to start.