To say that athlete activism is a recent “hype” is a myopic way to look at sports history. Since ancient times, athletes and other people in influential positions have used their voices and platforms to advocate for social justice. The fact that that activism is experiencing resurgence now really just underscores the fact that there is a need for such movements. Josh Martin shares this view with Shea Dawson, Director of Athlete and Community Relations at Overtime. Having spent much of her sports career supporting and advocating for athletes behind the scenes, Shea takes pride in the fact that prominent names in the industry are choosing to take a stand for what is right. In this insightful conversation, we get a powerful message for these interesting times: whenever you’ve got whole teams and leagues against you, it’s got to be hard to say you’re in the right.
Listen to the podcast here:
The Essence Of Athlete Activism With Shea Dawson
I’m excited about reinvigorating my Making America brand after working behind the scenes for a few years. Making America, for those of you who don’t know, was a video project that I created in 2019 as a way to figure out for myself what could be done and learn about some of the issues that impact America. The goal was to have these conversations and provide the information to a larger audience to help inspire and inform individuals who are seeking to create change in their communities with the means to do so. Knowledge is power.
Shea, how are you? How’s it going?
It’s going well. How are you?
It’s going well. I’m excited to have you. How’s your week going?
Work has been busy. I haven’t had a chance to breathe with everything going on.
Take a few moments to try to breathe and collect yourself. Let’s ease ourselves. Let’s find our presence. It’s always a good practice to ground yourself. I’m excited to have you Shea, Director of Athlete and Community Relations at Overtime. You do a lot. Why don’t you let the readers know a little bit more about yourself? I know you’ve had an incredible journey to get to where you are. I was doing some research on my own and it was fun to hear your story, humble beginnings, a lot of hustle, and a lot of heart.
My journey started with being a basketball player growing up in the inner city, that’s just how America is. Basketball was my savior. Me and my brother used to walk to Jack Robinson YMCA in San Diego, California every single day. We had a community of people that cared about us and loved us. That was the most exciting thing to do. I went to college. I got a scholarship. It’s Saddleback in Orange County, Mission Viejo. After that, I went to Pittsburgh for two years and played basketball. In my fifth year, I played volleyball. I grew a community of people there working with athletes. In my fifth year is when I realized I didn’t want to play. I didn’t want to seek it out. It didn’t serve me anymore.
I had a rough senior year in terms of disliking my identity and dating. My coach blames my dating life on not playing well or things like that. I quickly saw that performing in basketball made your self-esteem either skyrocket or plummet depending on how you were playing. I was on a bunch of highs and lows. I realized I didn’t want to continue that environment for myself. I knew I wanted to work with athletes. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I ended up getting an internship at Robert Morris working for Five Star Basketball and I got to learn the ins and outs of the back end of the game. I was intrigued by that. I was an operations person coordinator for flights. I made sure the kids ate.
It was like the camp, but I didn’t know that at the time. I thought it’s an internship. I’m going to take it and it happened to be at my school at Robert Morris. That’s where it started. I was driving my golf cart, driving to Staples, going across the street, getting copies, restocking supplies, and making the camp come to life. People depended on me and I liked that hustle and bustle of the grind. I saw college coaches. Eventually, it turned into top D1 college coaches coaching at the camp. Kids going to all the different stations from 6:00 AM to midnight eating, sleeping, waking up, and doing it all over again. Seeing those kids eventually grow and make it to the NBA. I was like, “There’s something here.”
When those guys would go to the NBA, they’d be like, “I remember when I and Shea were at Five Star. Shea was hooking me up with an extra shirt or an extra pizza,” or something like those memories. I started to see this part of their life means so much. How can I continue to live in this environment and help these athletes at such a malleable age when they’re excited about everything? Things aren’t as like, “I’ve already done that.” They’re trying to get evaluated by scouts. They’re trying to see where they’re at and measure up against other talents. It had everything in terms of this purpose. I’ve got a connection with athletes. I used to be an athlete. I’m obsessed with basketball. I’m obsessed with seeing where my career can go in terms of how I can go grow in ranks because I’m seeing all these college coaches coaching at Stanford, Harvard, Vanderbilt and Alabama. I’m like, “I was the one assisting them. I can grow with them.”
Where does your career go after Five Star?
After Five Star, I moved back to California but not to San Diego. I moved to LA with my friends and then I started working at a school called Windward School in Los Angeles in West LA, which I love. It was an independent private school. We had elite athletes like Imani Stafford McGee. She plays in the WNBA, which she took two years off to get her Law degree. Jordin Canada who was drafted number five in 2018 overall to the Seattle Storm. We have many great girls. It’s a great group and we won a lot. I was like, “What can I do? I’ve been winning here at Windward. There has to be more out there.”
In the summers, I was supplementing my income by working at Pangos All-American Camp also in LA/Long Beach depending on where they get the venue. Working in elite women’s basketball mixed in with elite men’s basketball, I had the best of both worlds. I was like, “How can I package what I’ve learned from the process from the men’s game and the women’s game since it’s completely different and makes not a career, but continue to the purpose?” That’s helping athletes get to where they need to go and then transition successfully from that sport. It is not easy to do because of the lifestyle and everything’s regimented, because you’re always being told what to do and how to work out.
I cut the ties early. I was able to humble myself early and let me get the grind in. I realized that that’s my value add to the world. That’s my value add to a lot of companies because it’s hard to figure that out. The only way you can understand that role is if you had experience. I didn’t realize I was building that experience and building that portfolio, but that’s what I was doing. Let’s say Paul Jordan goes to the NBA, DeMar DeRozan goes to the NBA, John Wall goes to the NBA. These are all campers at the camp, Deandre Ayton, Norman Powell, and the list goes on and on. I’m looking at these guys I’m parlaying with or working together.
They’re working out and I’m over here helping the situation and eventually they go to the NBA. I was like, “There has to be something else. If I’m helping them and now they’re in the NBA, maybe I can go to the NBA.” That’s crazy. A relationship that I developed a few years prior through my brother who’s also a professional basketball player. He ended up having four years in the NBA. I helped manage his career. Through that, one of his agents said, “I think you’d be perfect for this NBA Summer League opportunity.” I was 30 years old at the time. I was like, “I don’t know. I’m old to be going back to being an intern having done all this stuff already. You know what? No.” I was in my year of yes where if someone invites me somewhere or someone says, “This is going to be a good opportunity.” I have to say yes because I think I was blocking my blessings before, trying to manufacture my career path and my purpose when I needed to let the universe speak to me. That’s what I did. I ended up sending her my resume. They loved it. They called me back and say, “We see there’s an opportunity for you. Can you come to Las Vegas for twelve days?” I said, “Yes.” I’m out.
This was the NBA Summer League. I told my job, which they want me to do my own summer camp at the school, but it was with high school kids. I was like, “That’s not going to further my career. I have to tell them that I’m doing this other thing during the summer so they need to get another coach to do the camp.” They ended up agreeing and then I did the summer league. The first year was amazing. I was exposed to yet another backend of how the business works. I got my high school and my elite grassroots experience. I have the NBA behind the scenes who’s calling the shots, who’s who, what coach, DM, PR. I’ve got everything in one building. I was like, “This is crazy.” I have many experiences, let me try and push the pedal to the metal on this.
The second year I went in with a more direct path. I made a bunch of GMs. I had mastered more confidence to talk to them. I met two GMs and then I ended up kicking it off with Brandon Williams, who was the GM of the 87ers in the G-League. It was the D-League at the time, but now it’s the G-League. He also was VP of Administration and he hired me as a player development staff member. I was the manager of player programs and team services. I managed all the seventeen players day-to-day in terms of off the court. I do their team awareness meetings. I welcome their families. I did their tickets. During the games, I managed the family room. I manage all the personalities in the back house. That’s where I built my network and understood that what I was doing in the NBA was bigger than everything. Being kind to people, giving them an experience, trying to make a tailored customized experience for each player and person that I interact with.
The closest thing we have to that in the NFL is the player engagement guys. I always remember they’re shaking and bacon, kissing babies and making everyone happy. They’re guys I think highly of to this day. I still keep in touch with one of the guys, his name is Ramond. He was with the Chiefs and I had a call with him. You do have an impact on player’s lives and that access goes along way.Athlete activism starts with knowing that you're enough, that your voice is enough, that you're where you need to be for a reason. Click To Tweet
You get to keep that relationship, which is what I love. It’s like you share those special moments of traveling. They’re like, “Shea, can you give me the new Call of Duty game?” I’m like, “I got you.” I go like eight stores. It took me a lot to get the game, “I love you.” Having those funny interactions and being that person to make their experience everything, I realized that I was valuable for athletes. I start to understand athletes from a different perspective. I’m sensitive when people say things in the media or when they tweet things that are insensitive like, “They’re happy because they make a lot of money.” They have no idea. I moved into a player advocate space versus development. It’s advocacy all over. I’m even seeing what the leads are doing, boycotting and striking or whatever you want to use for social justice. It’s been so long that all these things that we’ve all had inside, that we spelled in these industries, that we’ve never been able to truly talk about. I’m happy where the athletes are now in using their voice, platform and lobbying for themselves.
How did your role at Overtime allows you to advocate for players and be in that space?
The project I’ve been working on which is my baby is called the Blueprint Series. The Blueprint Series is for the athletes that we work with for their parent community to come on a Zoom once a month. I bring on an industry professional. Someone from a financial industry who can talk about financial literacy from a pro perspective, that transition, talk about investments, compound interest, and break it down in a way that they can understand. It could be a 1-part or 2-part series depending on how much time the parents want to spend with it. They get to give me input. I bring all those people that they have questions about and no one talks about. We have a community space where we talk about that so they can empower themselves and the athlete at an early age.
That’s high school, middle school, and then that transition to college even though with the name, image and likeness stuff. Vetting the field for all the issues that can arise and then bringing on those professionals to speak about those topics has been cool. Before this transition into COVID and before social justice, my main job is to make sure athletes have a good experience when working with our brand. If we have a shoot like we worked with Alex Antetokounmpo and his brother, Mikey Williams was my godbrother. He has a show with us called Fear Nothing. I’m making sure going to those sites and making sure they have everything they need. I’m working with the producer of the show to communicate if there’s an issue or maybe there’s something I know is going to be uncomfortable, probably give the kid or the parents tips on things to make the show better that they can do that they keep in mind. Constantly mold, shape and try to make the athletes show up in a way that they would approve of and amplify their voices. It’s all moving parts. There’s a part where there are products, communicating with athletes, how they think about this, shooting out different ideas, research and development. A bunch of stuff.
I want to get back to this idea of empowering athletes. We’re talking about some of the social justice stances that athletes have been taking. We have to acknowledge that this has been going on for millennia, centuries. I was doing some research and it dates back to ancient Greece where athletes are using their platform to affect change in however they saw fit. It’s been reinvigorated though. It comes to the point where every generation there’s this series of events or something that happens where you have to take a stand again. Athletes of this generation are finally growing into that. It requires this not necessarily a specific bill, but you have people dying in the streets unarmed. You got the inequality as far as justice is concerned or lack thereof justice or diversity, representation is everything. You’re seeing all these issues arise. I’m curious of your take on the NBA strike and the fact that it’s important. It’s necessary to bring attention to these issues. I’m curious about your two cents on the strike, and a follow-up question would be, what’s your take on them continuing to play?
It’s an imperfect situation. Try and judge it the way I’ve seen people do is hard. I have my feelings on it. It’s hard to do when you’re not in that situation and it’s not your salary being challenged or it’s not your name on the line. We know what they should do as fans. We can say, “I would have done this.” Even in my own space, it’s hard for me to sometimes say what I feel because I don’t want to offend someone. It’s very brave what they’re doing. Let’s start with the WNBA first. They started up way before anybody this. I’m going to give my props to the WNBA, Alysha Clark, Jordin Canada, Staley, all of them are sticking together and starting this whole thing.
The world is looking to them, when to start sports, when to stop sports, and what the bubble looked like. I feel proud and scared. I feel like, what’s next? They’re doing things behind the scenes. I feel proud that other leagues have joined in and helped instead with the WNBA for doing what they did. I’m scared for the future because it’s uncertain and unknown, but I’m proud because they did it together. It was imperfect. I hear commentators say, “They’re told this person,” It’s social justice. It’s protesting. Protesting is not completely perfect or organized. You got to do how you feel at the moment. The Bucks didn’t feel like coming out. We have to adjust. I’m scared for us and for the world.
With the uncertainty, it’s concerning who knows what’s going to happen next? We’re surprised every day. You can’t time when these injustices are going to happen, when you feel a certain way or when certain actions or events take place. What the WNBA and the NBA have done following a great example set by the WNBA is take that first step. As a professional athlete, I can speak from firsthand experience when Colin Kaepernick was taken on the outs with the Jets at the time. This was a few years ago. Everyone’s going nuts like, “This guy doesn’t respect the veterans. What about the flag and the country?” It’s tough to respect an institution that doesn’t respect you. Respect is earned. When you say one thing and you do another, that makes you question if you stand for what you stand for. I’m referring to some of the founding documents of the country, as an athlete with what you have on the line, being your salary, the fact that he was sexually blackballed out of the league, ended up settling, that’s beside the point. Receiving death rates, putting your life on the line. This is a quarterback in the NFL. Who did he harm by taking a knee? It was the idea and that veil of ignorance.
People don’t know what they don’t know. Do you have access to someone else’s experience? When you have people shouting and protesting for how many years, in modern US history, the last century and the last Civil Rights movement in the ‘60s. I don’t know if there’s much of an excuse to say that you don’t know or you weren’t aware of these experiences when people have been shouting for generations about some of the injustices. I want to talk about the risk that athletes take. There’s a sense that, my personal experience, Colin Kaepernick has taken a knee. I’m thinking to myself like, “They can’t be shooting people like this. I’m scared. I don’t like being around cops.” I shouldn’t fear for my life whenever I see a cop car drive by or I walk past the cop. Do I have my ID on me? Do I have to reach for anything if they ask me? It’s this sense of paranoia and fear. It shouldn’t be that way.
When it comes to your career being put into question, by taking a stand for something that is right, it’s not whether you feel it’s right or wrong is right. It’s right to treat people equally and fairly. That’s what it is. If anyone was concerned about my field, thoughts about equality, it’s human rights. When you look at the history of our country and the cost of the ideals that our country claims to maintain. People put their lives on the line. I think of Colin Kaepernick standing to makes those sacrifices that people have made worthy. People fought and died. I had grandparents that served in the military. My dad served in the military. As black people, we have as much right to equality and justice for all as the next person regardless of the color of our skin. As athletes, you make a tremendous sacrifice and Colin Kaepernick made that sacrifice.
As I fought with that struggle personally about what to do. If you saw that season in 2016, the linking arms. It’s like, “What is this doing?” The buzz word of the month seemed to be performative and didn’t necessarily accomplish anything in terms of addressing those inequalities or those injustices. At the same time, you’re like, “This is what I feel comfortable doing.” Protest is something that you do in your own time. There are a time and a place, but it’s a very personal commitment to take that step forward and to take that sacrifice. When you see players that do have a lot at stake in the WNBA and the NBA take that stand, it’s extremely powerful. When you see Colin Kaepernick end his career for what he felt is right, it’s extremely powerful. During that experience, I was like, “This one guy took a knee.” The whole world is looking from his taking a knee. I’m thinking in my head like, “What can I do? What feels right for me? What feels authentic for me?” That’s what it was for me.
I wanted to find a way that I could speak to these injustices or some of the issues that impact our country in a way that was informed. I realized I didn’t have a lot of information. I played football for a living. I studied Anthropology in college. I have my degree but I started neglecting everything else. You’re aware, you watch the news and read the paper, but having expertise on what informs some of the injustices that black people face across the country, what immigrants face across the country, understanding climate change, and some of the issues that impact all of us. The reality is all these impacts all of us in some way, shape or form. I didn’t have those answers. I was like, “I want to make a difference, but I don’t know where to start or even what the issue is explicitly. Let’s go find that out.” That’s what the first iteration of Making America was.
It was me asking questions and listening to people that were working on the ground, fighting the good fight in different cities across the country. That’s what needs to take place. We need to listen more. That’s part of the issue when you can’t trust someone’s experience, you can’t trust their word for whatever reason. That’s when we start running into issues. When people are being harmed and they say they’re being harmed but you’re not being harmed. You’re like, “How are you being harmed? I’m fine.” Saying it out loud doesn’t make sense. There’s proof, numbers and statistics that these people are being harmed. It’s like, “What more do you need?” The honest answer is it doesn’t matter how many videos.
We had one guest on the show, her name was Dr. Kira Hudson Banks. This was in St. Louis. We were talking about race and education. She’s a professor at one of the Universities down in St. Louis. Her whole work is in raising equity in our children, the next generation, as a way to eliminate or eradicate racism in our country. She was making some comments and she called it out, “This is white supremacy.” We’re having this conversation. I was like, “Am I had? Am I off? You can’t toss around white supremacy without stepping on some toes.” Point-blank you’re going to step on some toes. Everyone’s not going to be comfortable. Everyone’s not going to be down for the ride. Everyone’s not going to be in it. That stuck out to me in one of the conversations that we had.
We used to have enough. The reality is we do have enough. It’s just a matter of being organized, doing, saying, and believing that enough is enough. One by one we have enough, it’s a matter of believing that it’s enough and organizing to be able to make that change that we want to see. That’s what I’m arriving at with this new season and this new trip. We visited nine cities. We’re trying to do something similar, but recruiting the people and being clear that the people are the answer. You can’t do anything. You can do a lot alone, but you can do more together. Something that I appreciated about your journey is not only the humility you had to take an internship at 30. This is my first year in many years I haven’t been to a training camp. That’s my reality. It’s like, “You got to learn something new.”
Where you’re at, I’m obsessed with figuring that part out because it looks different for everybody.
I’m doing this Making America project, but there’s a level of humility involved. There’s vulnerability. It’s scary, there’s a lot of uncertainty. There’s something that goes a long way, which you mentioned in your story and captured powerfully, is the power of community. There’s more that you could do together. When you’re helping others, specifically, your life of service to others pays dividends. That’s one of my core values. Investing in yourself and investing in your community is one and the same. At the end of the day, your community is better, you’re better. You’re part of that community. That’s how it works. That’s what I appreciate about your story. I don’t know if you want to share more on your thoughts on the community. We were supposed to be talking about athlete activism but a big part of the athlete activism that we saw was the fact that they took a stand together. There’s power and strength in numbers. They took that sacrifice for the greater good of their communities that they’re a part of. You can’t say enough about the fact that they understand that. It’s for the greater good so they benefit as well even though they might be making the immediate sacrifice with threats, their salaries or their reputation, but they’re standing on the right side of history.
You want to make sure you’re on the right side of it. Athlete activism starts with first self-awareness. Knowing that you’re enough and your voice is enough. No matter if you’re a LeBron, if you’re on a ten-day, you’re on a two-way contract, you’re a practice player or you’re starting. Whatever the case may be, you’re where you need to be for a reason. You never know who’s watching. I always say that even when working with athletes, sometimes it’s like, “Let’s get this person and this person. Let’s get both perspectives of what it’s like to be number 1 and what it’s like to be number 17.” Once you can understand number 17, it’s easy to understand number 1.In order to advocate for others, you have to advocate for yourself. Click To Tweet
That’s a spoon-fed, pampering team and marketing team. They got to find their financial person. They got to find their stylist. They have to trust them. Athlete activism is about intentionality also. What are your intentions? It’s waking people up. It’s taking athletes and saying, “Be intentional about your career, your interview and the shoes you wear on your feet.” What does that stand for? Don’t go through the motions of putting on a jersey, shoes or pads. Everything you do with your hair, your bow is paying tribute to your culture and who you are. Embracing all that stuff. Once you have that sense of self then that’s an activist.
I’m talking from my authentic self like, “Who I am.” That’s when it goes back to Colin Kaepernick. He had a purpose. His purpose wasn’t to be in the NFL or to say, “I’m Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback of the 49ers or an NFL player. I’m going to do what I need to do. I love my football, but I’m fighting and standing up for the underdog. Whether I do that with the NFL or I’ll do that on my own, I’m going to do it.” That’s what I’ve learned from athlete activism, from Colin and other people. When I was in the NBA, in my last year, I was unfixed. I’m like, “I’m not affecting change. I’m not helping these athletes’ transition to other teams the way I’d like them to.” I didn’t feel like there was a blueprint to do it. Everything was different. I felt like I didn’t have a voice. I felt like I didn’t have power, I did but I felt minimized because I was only a manager and not an EDP or an SVP.
I think I had to strip myself of all those titles and stuff like that and say, “What’s your goal? You came here to help athletes get through the NBA because that’s easy, if you’re not 1 through 5, your experience is completely different.” You can walk by people and they cannot say anything to you, but I’m that person that’s always saying something to you. I’m jumping on your back. I’m putting stuff in your locker. I’m putting a little note in there. If you say something is your favorite snack, I’m listening. I’m buying that for you. Other people coming in for pre-draft, I’m that person. You’re going to have a good experience because you matter and you’re valuable.
I’m overachieving here and it’s not being appreciated so I need to go where I’m appreciated. When I started at Overtime, I concocted my position. I created my position from what I’ve already learned, what I knew athletes needed, and I knew Overtime was a startup. I was betting the fact that they didn’t have somebody to help athletes and curate that experience because also we’re working with athletes young. It was like, “I need to get in there.” All my experience is from grassroots, you being a teacher and all of those things. That’s your whole development. You’re a student-athlete. You go to college, pros, maybe it’s at the NBA, maybe it’s overseas. All of those transitions I’ve also done with my brother. I’m still doing it with him now.
It was like, “I have to pass along that stuff to someone else.” That’s my driver to go to Overtime. It wasn’t that Overtime was amazing. Even though I said this company is awesome and they had a lot of diversity at the event I went to, but it was that I could fit things. I knew that and I was like, “I’m going to be working with babies.” I want to be able to get them ready so they don’t have those same issues transitioning. They already know or they have somebody they can call, “I’m going through this or tell their parents to call me.” Me and Markel’s mom, we talk all the time still. He’s in the league. He’s done well, but I’m checking up. I’m like, “What are you doing? How are you doing? How’s is it feeling? What’s going on? Can I bet anything for you? What can I do to make sure your experience continues to be what it’s supposed to be?” You’re valuable to whatever organization no matter who you are.
To sum that up, what I’m hearing is you have the self-awareness to understand who you are, where you are and what you are. There’s a sense of self and establishing that sense of self. When you have that self, there’s a value that’s associated with that. You see your value. What I found in your story is that in order to advocate for others, you had to advocate for yourself. You had to find a place where you were appreciated.
The purpose is to leave and say, “I’m not the NBA. I’m not attached to saying I work for the NBA. I’m the Shea Dawson experience. I’m giving love to everybody.” Somebody’s going to get this luck. You have to know when to walk away when you’re not appreciated. That’s with athletes who have contracts. This team no longer serves you like Kevin Durant. People knocked him for going to Golden State. It didn’t serve him anymore. He needed to go where he was appreciated and where he was wanted. That was Golden State. You can’t hate on that. You can say whatever you want to say, but if you’re looking at it, his quality of life and what he was looking to do, be a once in a lifetime player, win championships, and compete at the highest level with the best players.
He’s in Silicon Valley. I know he’s active in the venture. It aligns in a lot of ways. People fail to see.
You have to choose yourself.
In the context of activism that allows you to take that stand. At the end of the day, you’re standing for what you believe in as an individual. Nothing else serves you beyond that. I appreciate this conversation, Shea. It’s a great way to kick off the series. I’m excited to reinvigorate that Making America brand. I’m happy to have you as our first guest.
We can talk more about this because I got you.
For sure. I’m excited about the project and I’m excited to have you on. You’re the first official guest since we recorded. We think highly of you and I’m excited to share this conversation with the world and keep the conversation going and keep talking.
I’m honored to talk to a wonderful black man doing his thing. I appreciate you. You don’t know me, but I do love you. If you ever need anything, I’m here.
I appreciate that Shea, much love to you. I appreciate your time.
About Shea Dawson
Experienced connector with a demonstrated history of working in the sports industry. Skilled in Player/Athlete Development, Emotional Support, Public Speaking, Interpersonal Skills, Social Media, and Servant Leadership. Strong operations professional with a Bachelor’s degree focused in Sports Management from Robert Morris University.