Demise of the Activist-Athlete

A thought-provoking quote from Celtics guard Ray Allen on LeBron James:

“Mike (Michael Jordan) paved the way for all of us to open up the endorsement door. But the one thing that Mike never was is political. I think in today’s era, the NBA player has an even greater podium if he chooses to use it. And with Barack Obama being the first black president, it’s a great forum. I think that would separate him from anybody who’s done this. … It’s great to be a basketball player, but to transcend sports is a big responsibility. If he were able to pull that off — if he wants to pull that off — I think that would set him apart.”

Jordan was, of course, famously apolitical. Whether it was his perhaps apocryphal remark that “Republicans buy shoes, too” or his refusal to endorse the black challenger to Jesse Helms’ North Carolina senate seat, Jordan chose to remain above the fray. In my view, this is merely a personal choice and not a moral failing (although I’m critical of Jordan’s silence on Helms).

Famous athletes, as far as I’m concerned, are obligated to obey the law and be charitable. (And I mean charity in the genuine sense, not in the “sham foundation” sense or the “coerced by Frank McCourt” sense.) It’s not incumbent upon them to be politically active.

With that said, there’s undoubtedly been a cultural shift. Nothing crystallizes that shift quite like athletes’ behavior on the Olympic medal dais. In the Mexico City Games in ’68, Tommy Smith and John Carlos (pictured above) followed up their gold-bronze finish in the 200 meters by giving the Black Power salute during the playing of the National Anthem. As gestures go, what Smith and Carlos did was viewed at the time as being treacherously subversive. In fact, Brent Musburger, then a young columnist for the Chicago American, likened Smith and Carlos to “black-skinned stormtroopers.”

Fast forward to the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and the “Sherman’s March to the Sea” that was the Dream Team’s gold-medal run. During the medal ceremony, Charles Barkley and the aforementioned Jordan placed their hands not over their hearts but over their Reebok uniform logos. They did so because of their endorsement contracts with Nike.

On the one hand, you have Smith’ and Carlos’ gestures of activism and self-sacrifice. On the other hand, you have Barkley’s and Jordan’s gestures of corporatism and self-preservation. According to the sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards, the arresting change in behavior marks the fact that black athletes are “sufficiently integrated into the business matrix of sports.”

It’s true, certainly. Elite professional athletes these days are less athletes than they are an accumulation of sport-specific skills, marketability, and business interests–they’re “brands,” as FreeDarko puts it. To invoke the old journalism chestnut, the afflicted have become the comfortable. Even so, are we really to mourn the material uplift of the athlete? Even though social activism among athletes is a rarity these days, I’d submit that it’s very much a good thing that professional athletes are paid according to market and not, as they mostly were in the days of Smith and Carlos, suffering under various rigged systems. If that uplift has deprived us of some would-be activists, then I’d still say the changes, on balance, are good and welcome.

Now you might assail the modern athlete for “forgetting when he came from,” but there’s also wisdom in his choice to disengage. Considering that people generally react like colicky infants when, say, actors hold forth on current events, it’s hard to blame those in the public eye for their measured silence. What people really want is for athletes/celebrities to speak up and rabble rouse only when they’re in agreement on the issues. If they happen to say things that run counter to our view of the world, then, well, they just need to keep quiet and resume entertaining us. After all, if you alienate half of your fans these days, the costs entail more than just the righteous indignation of Brent Musburger. You lose dollars.

So when LeBron James passes on signing a Darfur petition, you’re free to view it as cowardice. The more sensible approach, however, would be to view it as a response to the demands of the sporting public and the natural outgrowth of the athlete’s improved circumstances.

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One response to “Demise of the Activist-Athlete

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