Do Athletes Need to Stand Up?

File:Muhammad Ali NYWTS.jpg

Jamilah King has a good post up at ColorLines that ponders what, if anything, is required of athletes when it comes to political leadership.

As professional athletes have risen in media exposure and income over at least the past four decades, so too has the call for them to take center stage in some of the country’s fiercest political battles. It’s a call that’s colored largely by the fact that many of America’s best and brightest professional athletes are young black men, many of whom have seemingly beaten the odds and risen from poverty to stardom.

“The era when we think about athletes speaking out was the 1960’s and 1970’s, when you had mass social movements in the streets,” said Dave Zirin, a sports columnist for The Nation and author of Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love. “It’s wrong to expect athletes to speak out in greater numbers without movements that exist in greater numbers.”

The premise for this call, of course, is that pro athletes have a tremendous amount of money and cultural cache, and that their influence is even bigger than that of politicians or movement icons. A 2008 Forbes list of the Most Influential Athletes summed it up this way: “When Shaquille O’Neal talks, people listen.”

“Professional athletes, and certainly at least smart athletes, really understand that all athletes are brand images,” said Daniel Durbin, the director of the Institute of Sports, Media and Society at the University of Southern California. “The most dangerous thing you can do for a brand is politicize it.”

Etan Thomas of the Atlanta Hawks makes an appearance in this piece, as Thomas is wont to do in pieces about politically outspoken athletes. But — and this is going to sound meaner than I intend it to  — Etan Thomas sucks, which is kind of a big deal in this instance. That he spends his time taking stands on issues that generally fall in line with liberal orthodoxies is commendable if you’re a fan of liberal orthodoxies (and writing terrible poetry if you’re a fan of same). But because he’s not a very good or very famous player, the pecuniary stakes for him doing so are pretty low. The calculus is very different for LeBron James, who is the best basketball player in the world, and accordingly, boasts a huge portfolio of endorsements.

Relatedly, over at the Root, Zack Burgess argued somewhat sanctimoniously that today’s black athletes have failed to pick up the mantle of the  outspoken athletes the 1960’s and 1970’s.

This came to me when I saw that a 69-year-old Muhammad Ali, who’s handicapped with Parkinson’s disease, had sent two letters to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seeking the release of two detained U.S. nationals, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal. I couldn’t help but be saddened and wonder where the voice of the engaged, passionate and socially conscious athlete had gone. Why does Ali have to do this? Where are LeBron James, Donovan McNabb and Derek Jeter?

What we presently have is a plethora of walking and breathing companies that refuse to come down on the side of any issue, just like a Fortune 500 company that contributes to both political parties, no matter the outcome.

But we also have a generation of athletes devoid of personality, which makes it even worse. I wonder how so many sports stars can live with themselves and consistently ignore the issues of today. Let’s do a moral inventory of the problems that have affected, and continue to affect, us globally.

Burgess uses Ali as an example without acknowledging the historical context in which Ali lived or that Ali himself wasn’t an outlier among athletes. (He was, at one point, the most famous athlete on the planet and possessed an uncommon charisma.) Every black athlete wasn’t Ali or Jim Brown or  Bill Russell in terms of notoriety or principle, and those guys were all speaking out against  an issue — soul-crushing American racism — that was a reality of their daily lives. In that world, being black and talented and unapologetic about it was itself a political act.

It’s also worth remembering that Ali, diminished by illness, was hardly a universally beloved figure when he was younger. There’s an argument to be made that in the post-Michael Jordan world Ali couldn’t  even have become Ali. There are more media outlets clamoring for slivers of the public attention, which is a far cry from the times when title fights were carried live on radio and breathlessly hyped on the front pages of daily papers. The reason millions of people who don’t watch golf or sports even know who Tiger Woods is because of a ubiquity afforded him by his many paid endorsements in a variety of media — endorsements he almost certainly wouldn’t have if he said anything remotely controversial. Or like Ali, chilled tough with the Nation of Islam.

This isn’t an apologia for LeBron or whomever. I don’t know if his general silence on major issues is a cynical concession to building his brand. It’s equally possible that he — like many people who aren’t in the business of being paid to have an opinion about Issue X — doesn’t really care about any of these things. But I’m not ready to chalk up their silence to moral cowardice. Or at least, a moral cowardice that is somehow unique to athletes.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • I’d love it his athletes like Lebron or Tiger stood up for social issues but we can’t ignore what we’re really asking them to do.

    “Can you throw away millions of dollars for your opinion?”

  • blackink12

    Or even beyond that, like a lot of people, LeBron and others simply might not have much of an opinion about the hot-button issues of our time. It’s entirely possible that LeBron hasn’t given much thought to torture, or abortion, or marriage equality, and thus hasn’t formed an opinion worth voicing publicly.

    Which, as G.D. says, wouldn’t make him all that unique among anyone in any crowd. Especially for someone in their mid-20s.

    And that should be okay. People should be free to find their voice on their own time.

    • i was thinking about this in relation to Barkley’s recent criticisms of homophobia. like, i was glad the dude said what he said, that he used his platform to say it. But that’s because he said some stuff that happens to align with what I believe. what if he came out against marriage equality? I’d be side-eyeing everything he said going forward, basketball-related or no. (And of course, Chuck is retired, so his decision to speak up — not that he’s ever been reticent about doing so — is a lot different because he’s not finna lose his Nike contract for saying something that gets people’s hackles up.)

      • blackink12

        That’s also a good point. What if Barkley’s opinion on gay athletes more closely aligned with Tim Hardaway than John Amaechi?

        Would people want to hear what he had to say then?

        All that said, Barkley is a different sort of cat. He’s outspoken by any standard, let alone that of a professional athlete. And I don’t think he’s nearly as informed on the issues as people would like to believe.

        But he gets the benefit of the doubt because he’s generally a likable guy.

  • This is an important discussion. I have to say, by and large, I think these first three posts cut today’s athletes far too much slack.

    Seanathan, for example, seems to think it’s ok to put a price tag on social conscience. If asking a star to throw away “millions of dollars” is too high a price, would it be more acceptable if the dollar figure were *lower*? People stand up to sexually harassing bosses and dishonest lawyers, accountants, and politicians with far less money on the line. The outsized sums of money should make it easier and not harder to live by one’s beliefs. None of the athletes named above is living paycheck to paycheck.

    The key word, I think, is one GD mentions in the OP: “brand.” The athletes that have been named are spokespersons for multi-billion dollar campaigns for several different international brands. I would say that it is the pressure to manage public relations for all these different companies — from Deutsche Bank and Nike to AT&T and Hanes — that has today’s athletes so well-managed. Most of them bear all the marks of having been trained on what to say by publicists — even what to say about their performance in post-match conferences.

    As an example, let’s look at the Williams sisters. A year or two ago, Venus Williams led a successful campaign for equal pay for the women’s competitors at Wimbledon. This is a fairly benign issue: and it is one that impacted her money! Even though the women play three sets to the men’s five (and therefore could be said to work less), Williams could look like an injured *woman* in this situation instead of an “angry black woman.” The ABW tag would come out in a heartbeat if she took on the USTA for its complete failure to invest in inner-city tennis talent. The USTA has a terrible record with Af-Am tennis players, from Ashe to Lori McNeil and Zina Garrison. The sisters themselves are now celebrated by the USTA, but they entirely bypassed its developmental programs.

    Early in their careers, both sisters (and their father) were known for pointing out unfairness within the racism-prone world of tennis. These days, their father has been largely removed from the spotlight and you rarely hear a peep out of them. For example, Serena did not call out President Bush for his response to Katrina, but she did quietly donate money to the relief efforts for each ace she hit in that year’s US Open. That’s about as much as you’ll get out of either of them in public today (though I’m sure Serena, if not both of them, has much more to say in private. After she threatened to eff up that lineswoman, we know she has a mouth!)

    In conclusion, I think it is completely realistic to investigate this question and not to give any sort of passes. And as for finding their voices “in their own time”, as blackink12 writes, I think the better question might be why today’s athletes are often so uneducated about these basic questions. I’m not interested in “blaming” them for cowardice. Instead, I see the matter as one of being ill-informed at first and then MIS-informed by colleges, coaches, and multinational companies who profit from them.

    The question, I think, is how to use both schools and other consciousness-raising methods to inform more people — stars and everyday people — about the systems they find themselves caught in. Certainly the Ohio State case indicates just how much athletes need to be educated about their own predicaments and possibilities.

    • I think the better question might be why today’s athletes are often so uneducated about these basic questions.

      But, again, i don’t think the athletes of the past were more educated about the issues of their day, nor do i think today’s athletes are “uneducated about basic questions.”

      again, being Oscar Robertson and publicly stating that it’s really, really fucked up that you’re not allowed to stay in the same hotel as your teammates is a whole lot different than grilling Kevin Durant about his stance on, say, China’s human rights record. I also think that this construction overemphasizes the hay made by a few really outspoken athletes from the 60’s and 70’s. they weren’t all John Carlos and Tommie Smith.

      • April

        Good point. Why should we expect athletes to not only be well-versed in politics that don’t directly affect them but to have enough interest to make public pronouncements on them? This strikes me as rather odd. Is it solely based on them having visibility? If that’s the case, why aren’t we on, say, Beyonce for not being politically engaged?

        • Speaking for myself, I haven’t been saying I *expect” it. But I do think it’s worth asking 1) whether or not there has been a decrease in such political engagement (and I would include any performer, athletic, musical or dramatic) and 2) if so, what the causes and consequences of that shift might be.

          As far as I can tell, we have gone from a few politically engaged performers to almost none (save Kanye and Lupe Fiasco). And I don’t think that’s a good thing — even for them, as they don’t seem well-informed even about issues that do affect them. I am not behind the idea that stars should be our leaders simply because they are visible. But I do think that since they often come from black communities, their politics indicate and perpetuate both harmful and beneficial trends. And, therefore, I feel we have a right to ask, like Marvin Gaye, what’s going on (with them, with us, and with our relationship)?

  • BTW, GD: From Ali to Abdul-Jabbar, many of the pioneering athletes of the 60s and 70s spoke out against domestic racism, the Vietnam War, colonization and poverty in Africa, and even sexism. They were restricted to the “one issue” of “soul-crushing American racism.”

  • GD, you seem to have your mind set on this one, lol. My point with the Wllms sisters is that these athletes often have very little to say even about issues that do directly affect them — matters within their sports and within the nation. Where is the movement among NCAA athletes to ensure that they are paid a portion of the money they generate for universities? I would suspect they simply don’t know another way to organize the economy of college sports… and no one, it would seem, is telling them otherwise. And this has to do both with the lack of a mass social movement with its consciousness-raising efforts and the lack of serious critical education.

    I said today’s might be uneducated to grant them the benefit of the doubt and not accuse them of straight cowardice. It does seem their sponsor’s terror of “bad PR” is the reason.

    Your hypothetical Kevin Durant question is beside the point others are making–and with which I agree. Surely, outspoken political speech was not every athlete’s metier in the heyday of civil rights. However, I am hard pressed to think of *any* athlete today (or a film star) who takes stances that might bring negative press to their companies.

    So, I’m back to my original point: there does seem to have been a shift toward know-nothingness and not rocking the boat. For their sakes and the rest of ours, it is worth trying to figure it out.

    • MH8D

      Why does it have to be a choice between ignorance and cowardice? Maybe they just don’t care. Don’t they have that right? Everyone isn’t driven to change the world, for some people, the world works fine for them just the way it is. I would think a young millionaire even more likely to feel this way than most.

      • “Everyone isn’t driven to change the world”

        MH8D — you seem to have skipped the part where I mentioned that many athletes don’t even organize to change areas that “do directly affect them.” — And the vast majority of athletes playing college ball, in the minors or in European leagues, or on tennis’s satellite tour are not “young millionaires.” In most cases, they generate far more revenue for owners without getting their share. And they risk concussion, injury and more–often having foregone any chance to develop other marketable skills in pursuit of sports stardom.

        So, even if we understand the “I got mine” school of thought… that wouldn’t explain the apparent silence of others. You’d expect that a few stars who went through the fire would try to institute change and a few who’d been screwed would be speaking up. Maybe I’ve missed them (haven’t seen Real Sports in a long time).

  • correction to my post of 9:38 — last line should read “were *not* restrictued to the ‘one issue’ of ‘soul-crushing American racism.'”

    GD, I know from previous posts that you are against any narrative of decline from the days of Jim Crow. While I can’t agree with the Albert Murray position taken by your frequent adversary J, I think two things are indisputable. One, there is no longer a mass movement for black liberation — economic, sexual, cultural, and decolonial. Two, since not all of the goals of that long movement have been achieved, we should be about the business of reinvigorating it in ways that meet the circumstances of the present. I differ from J in that I don’t think today’s arts and cultural forms are inherently not up to this challenge. But I have taught in classrooms from junior high to college for the past thirteen years and I have not seen much familiarity with the contemporary faces of racial inequality and the ways to fight them. From gerrymandering political districts, racial and terrorist profiling, to environmental racism, the struggle continues… The plantation system of big-ticket college sports is one among those places. I am not — nor could anyone be — fully informed. But I think there has been a cultivated and intentional effort to stifle critical thought and direct action. And isn’t the best trick of the devil of racism to convince people that it no longer exists? And might that not make it easier to sell them on the pipe dream of turning themselves into a brand name, even if their ethics might otherwise lead them away from such a decision?