Upon entering the vast Atlanta History Center, guests encounter the inseparable marriage between race, politics, and sports. Exhibitions like “Turning Point: The American Civil War,” “Native Lands: Indians And Georgia,” and “Fair Play: The Bobby Jones Story” put into perspective influential moments not only in the Georgia city’s history, but the entire United States. Although these informative attractions magnetize consumers’ eyes, it’s a glass casing memorial of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s influence that stops visitors in their tracks.
Preserved newspaper covers from The Atlanta Constitution to the Atlanta Daily Word captured those Earth-shattering moments of the storied activist’s passing. “Dr. King Shot, Dies In Memphis, Curfew On, 4,000 Guards Called” reads one headline. Another daily printed a story on the moment former President Ronald Reagan enacted Martin Luther King Day in 1983.
As history has shown, that activism spirit enclosed within the center’s MLK section is too powerful to be contained behind plexiglass. Just a few steps behind the building’s main entrance was the meeting ground for a group of people who plan to add fuel to a social justice trend between athletic brands and household monikers. McElreath Hall housed the introduction to PUMA’s global platform #Reform (Oct. 6), ushered by three of entertainment and sports’ biggest names.
Moderated by Adam Petrick, PUMA’s Global Director of Brand and Marketing, the event was supported by WNBA All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith, rapper Meek Mill, and the legendary activist/former pro-athlete Dr. Tommie Smith. Each person revealed their platform under the #Reform banner, which seeks to enact and preserve equality and social change. For Diggins-Smith, her lane will center on gender equality. For Mill, born Robert Rihmeek Williams, his focus remains on criminal justice reform. And for Dr. Smith, universal equality prevails on his agenda since the day he raised his fist on the victory stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Mexico (Oct. 16).
“After walking off the victory stand and hearing the boos, I felt it was very necessary to identify strength with the reform to continue,” Smith said to a room of journalists. “That’s why if you saw me coming off the victory stand, you would see a newness walking across the track. That purified the idea that you can’t mess with this, simple and clear.”
According to PUMA’s CEO Bjorn Gulden, Dr. Smith has been a constant waterfall of inspiration for the brand for over 50 years, the same amount of time that has passed since he and fellow track star John Carlos did the black power salute. His activism outside of sports continues to this day, something that Gulden believes is an integral part of the everlasting quest for fairness.
“As a company, we need to translate the tools to speak up for the issues that we can impact,” Gulden said. “We cannot change the world alone, but I think we can inspire people who have the chance to influence.”
During the #Reform presentation, Petrick revealed a few statistics of what consumers would like to see between brands like PUMA and its support of athletes or entertainers’ social views. Sixty-five percent of supporters agree that companies should stand for justice and provide resources for those amplifying that notion. “Sports culture goes beyond the 22 seconds on the track or 48 minutes on the court,” Petrick said.
That statement resonates with Diggins-Smith. Two years ago, players within the WNBA adorned shirts that read Black Lives Matter, a proclamation that soon inspired other athletes to dismiss the “shut up and dribble” vitriol. Players were initially met with fines for dismissing the league’s uniform regulations, but former WNBA president Lisa Borders rescinded the penalties to “show them even more support” in expressing their views.
“When you’ve been given this platform it’s about the voices that you represent. It’s about what you do with it and some people don’t do anything with their platform,” Diggins-Smith says to VIBE. “It’s important to speak out about things that you care about, and the WNBA — be it the president or the front office — just having the players be able to speak for themselves, it’s important that we get support to speak about whatever we feel like is important to us because these social issues impact everybody differently.”
The Dallas Wings team player is also working to level out the compensation gender gap in pro-basketball. “We have power in our voices to start these conversations that may be uncomfortable, that everybody may not like,” she said. Through the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), Diggins-Smith hopes the WNBA’s personnel will be granted the same marketing tools like their male counterparts to grow the brand beyond measure. Through marketing strategies or creative social media ideas, Diggins-Smith hopes “to see more women in these suite seat level positions, and in positions of power and decision-making. In the workplace as well.”
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That fairness and balance also translate to Mill’s pursuits. Since he’s found a renewed sense of purpose after being released from state prison earlier this year, the Philadelphia native wants the country’s laws and statutes to be handed down the same way for white or black defendants. While music serves as his first love and passion, he shared that he’s “falling in love” with helping to make a change in men and women’s lives who’ve been falsely incarcerated. The “Traumatized” artist said he believes in equality, but it’s hard to fathom for someone coming from a community that’s not seen as favorable in the eyes of the law.
“If you have a drug problem on probation in Montgomery County they send you to get help,” he said. “In the city amongst blacks and Hispanics, if you have a drug problem they send you to jail. It’s two different things and I’ve seen both sides of that.”
Giving a nod to Mill and Diggins, Dr. Smith said it’s young people like the aforementioned that should continue to pass the torch to the next generation of social reformers. “We are moving forward and I don’t think we are going to finish until something is done,” Smith said. “The race is being run, but it’s not finished.”