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Should athletes comment on politics, culture and the state of American society? The St. Louis Police don't seem to think so.

On Sunday, five St. Louis Rams players came out of the tunnel bearing the "hands up, don't shoot" pose of Ferguson protesters before a game against the Oakland Raiders. The gesture, especially powerful in the wake of the grand jury's decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the August shooting of Michael Brown, is designed to draw attention to the disproportionate use violent and deadly police tactics against blacks across the United States.

Source: YouTube

These Rams players, taking the field in the same county where Brown was shot and killed, showed their solidarity with a simple gesture. Receiver Kenny Britt went a bit further on Instagram

The players face criticism from the St. Louis County police, among others. The Associated Press reports that the St. Louis County police chief and Rams officials are currently engaged in an infantile spat over whether the team had actually apologized for the actions of those five players.

But the debate over the dictionary definition of an apology misses the point. Athletes are people first and performers second — and we should praise the Rams for using their position in society for calling attention to an important social issue.

Why it matters: Sports play such a large role in society that athletes are constantly under a microscope, their actions and words heavily scrutinized by a public who sees them as entertainers, not people. As a result, public criticism and the possibility of losing endorsement dollars often deters athletes from taking a stance on important social issues. 

This isn't the first time we told athletes to shut up and play. Earlier this year, a few NBA players, including Dwight Howard and Amar'e Stoudemire, expressed support on social media for Palestinians killed during fighting between Hamas militants and Israeli soldiers near Gaza Strip. More than 2,000 people were killed during the summer conflict, and the majority of them were Palestinian.

Howard tweeted "#FreePalestine," promptly apologized for it and then deleted the tweet. Stoudemire posted a picture on Instagram of what is intended to be a Palestinian and an Israeli boy side by side with the words "Pray for Palestine" on the top of the picture. Even this picture promoting unity and peace between the two sides received backlash. Like Howard's tweet, the picture was deleted by Stoudemire.

Athletes can be powerful agents of change. People tend to look at athletes as only athletes. But these are individuals with thoughts and opinions on societal issues like everyone else. The difference is that most of these notable sports figure don't want to offend anyone. We value free speech, but not when it invades the bubble of Sunday football. Our common reaction when athletes weigh in on political and social issues: Just shut up and play, jerk, and stop inconveniencing my fun.

But athletes have always sent powerful messages, long before Michael Brown met Darren Wilson on that fateful afternoon in August. In probably the most significant athlete protest against injustice, runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos held up their fists in the "black power" salute after winning gold and bronze respectively in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Olympic Games.

Tommie Smith (middle) and John Carlos (right) hold the "Black Power" saluteSource: AP
Tommie Smith (middle) and John Carlos (right) hold the "Black Power" salute  AP

In one of the most iconic images of the 20th century, Smith and Carlos made a statement about the inequality and segregation that was happening in the country. Smith and Carlos were chastised for the actions, suspended from the team and even received death threats. But their actions were bold, and they believed it was necessary. And nearly 50 years later, this is one of the strongest images representing the intersection of cultural events and sports.

Carlos told the Nation's Dave Zirin what he thought about the Rams' players courageous display in the face of scrutiny:

"They may be under contract to play football, but greater than that, they have a right to care about humanity. They have the right to feel whether something is just or unjust. They are entitled to their opinions, most centrally that Michael Brown's life should not have been taken. Asking them to just 'shut up and play' is like asking a human being to be paint on the wall. They have the right to say what they feel in their heart. A lot more athletes need to step up and speak up as well. These atrocities have been going on, and we are saying enough is enough."

These players do not just stand alone on an island, as competitor and athletes first and people second. When they sign contracts to do battle on the playing field, they don't sign away their position in society, their personal experiences or the stories that make them the men and women they are today. It doesn't take away that right that every American enjoys to take a stand against injustice.

Whether you're talking about the five St. Louis Rams players or Tommie Smith and John Carlos, athletes have that ability to make statements about injustice on a grander scale. Let's not shame them for doing so.