Professional athletes are among the most recognized individuals in America. They're on TV, either playing games that we're engrossed in or pitching products in commercials shown throughout those contests.

They have millions of followers on Twitter, Snapchat and other social media channels, which they've got to stoke constantly to ensure they stay in the fans' consciousness. The same can be said for amateur athletes, whether Olympians or collegiate competitors. No matter where they play, people pay attention.

For the most part, their comments are limited to X's and O's, or maybe insight into the emotions of a play or outcome. But they have a voice, and lately we've seen some famous professionals speak out on issues beyond sports.

Violence struck cities across the country this month, illustrated in the recorded deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota — both at the hands of police followed by a planned peaceful protest in Dallas that led to the deaths of five law enforcement officers and the sniper who killed them.

Shortly after the last Dallas officer was laid to rest, three more police officers were killed, along with the man who shot them dead in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The month before, a gunman killed 49 people at an Orlando, Florida nightclub before being killed by police.

In the midst of that came ESPN's annual presentation of the ESPY Awards, which brings together athletes and other celebrities in a televised event. The occasion on July 12 served as an opportune setting for four of the NBA's powerful personalities to spread a message to the 5.5 million viewers.

Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James began the telecast with a sobering message delivered with anything but the pomp that usually accompanies award show openings. There was no musical introduction, no smiling host, no blazing spotlights, just four men on a dimly lit stage with all focus on their message of social change.

Paul, who plays for the Los Angeles Clippers, cited past sports figures such as Olympic track star Jesse Owens and Major League Baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson for their roles in social activism, stating that the current generation of players chooses to "follow in their footsteps."

"The system is broken, the problems are not new, the violence is not new, and the racial divide definitely is not new, but the urgency for change is definitely at an all-time high," said Anthony of the New York Knicks.

They implored fellow athletes, many of whom were present at the event, to join them in the cause. "We all have to do better," said James, who this spring led the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first NBA championship.

It would be easy for critics to dismiss their thoughts because, after all, these are people paid to play games. But most of these athletes are college-educated, and many are accomplished in fields outside their sports. "Dumb jocks" they are not.

The next night, former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Emmanuel Acho was putting their words into action in Austin, Texas. Acho brought together athletes and police, including Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, in a summit to address the country's racial division, according to

This is not the first time that sports and society have intersected demonstrably. It wasn't even the first involvement by James, who in 2014 joined other NBA players in protesting the death of Eric Garner in New York City by sporting T-shirts that read "I can't breathe," the phrase related to Garner's choking death in police custody.

Recently, the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx and New York Liberty shared their view of the divisive issues with messages on warmup shirts. The Lynx's shirts read "Change Starts with Us Justice and Accountability" on the front and the names of Castile and Sterling on the back. The Liberty wore shirts sporting "#BlackLivesMatter" and "#Dallas5," commemorating Castile and Sterling the slain Dallas officers. The Lynx's actions caused security officers, off-duty members of Minneapolis' police department, to leave their posts at the game in protest.

American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympics, raised their gloved fists in a Black Power salute and bowed their heads on the medal stand.

The link between sports and activism spans decades. A historic moment was captured at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and produced an iconic photo that tells the story of sports' connection to social issues in the 1960s.

American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meters, raised their gloved fists in a Black Power salute and bowed their heads on the medal stand during the playing of the U.S. national anthem to draw attention to racism and segregation in the U.S. at the time. They were banished from the Games but eventually were hailed as heroes, perhaps more for their committed stance than for their athletic accomplishments.

The third competitor on the medal stand that day, Australian Peter Hunter, showed his solidarity with the Americans by wearing a badge promoting the Olympic Project for Human Rights. When he returned home, he was reviled by his countrymen for his action, his achievements overshadowed by his nation's emotions against him.

The previous summer in Detroit, Tigers outfielder Willie Horton injected himself into a societal issue by taking to his city's streets still wearing his game jersey after an afternoon doubleheader against the New York Yankees in an attempt to stop rioters and looters during a crisis between the police and the community in his hometown.

In 1973, the cause was different, but publicized as loudly. Tennis star Billie Jean King played Bobby Riggs in what was called "The Battle of the Sexes." King whipped Riggs in an internationally televised match in Houston, helping to advance the women's equality movement worldwide.

As we look back on figures like Robinson and Owens, Smith and Carlos, their missions are reflected in a historic light. Now, as we try to move forward as a nation, perhaps LeBron and company will be viewed in the same light.