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Friday, March 30, 2007
the disappearance of the Activist Athlete
Where have the Activist Athletes gone? In the 1960s and 1970s, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Bill Walton and Muhammed Ali (amongst many others) advocated, even agitated for political change. A few days ago, Professor Wasserman suggested in connection with HBO's "The UCLA Dynasty" that the Activist Athlete has waned in recent years, due in part to college athletes being less politically involved than they used to be, social activism now coming from the political right (i.e. devout Christian athletes) as opposed to the political left, and that coaches, in particular Coach Wooden not allowing political expression on the playing field or court.
Folks may wonder why athletes today refuse to take strong political stands when the stages that they occupy would allow great influence. Certainly it is not for a lack of controversial political activity. The nation is currently embroiled in an unpopular war, much like Vietnam years ago. Issues of race and gender continue to fill the airwaves, the newspapers and the law reviews.
After reading about Tiger Woods in this week’s Sports Illustrated, it seems abundantly clear why the Activist Athlete has disappeared: Corporate Endorsements (and the potential for superstar athletes to become “billionaires”). Woods’ states in SI when asked about his business acumen and decisions: “It all depends on how much risk you want to take on. . . The things I do are very conservative. . . . I guess you don’t become billionaires by making bad decisions.” Corporate dollars were far less available and significant in the years of the activist Lew Alcindor, Walton and Cassius Clay.
Recall, that Tiger Woods refused to hold Fuzzy Zoeller’s feet to the fire, when Zoeller made fairly egregious racist comments in connection with Tiger as a young professional. Recall that Michael Jordan sprinted away from political controversy during his career, in particular when the issue of child labor abuse and Nike’s manufacture of “Air Jordan’s” overseas surfaced. In fact, it is almost stunning today to hear an athlete take a controversial position. Several years ago Kellen Winslow, Sr. talked openly about affirmative action during his NFL Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Eighteen years ago John Thompson, Jr., boycotted a Georgetown basketball contest while the coach to protest NCAA admissions standards he deemed harmful to young African American athletes.
It is difficult to imagine that Kellen Winslow, Jr. would strike any type of controversial political position today. Similarly, John Thompson III would stun pundits were he to advocate a controversial position in the manner that his father did.
The allure of corporate sponsorship dollars keeps the modern Activist Athlete in check. Why would Tiger Woods risk his fortune? Why would Michael Jordan risk his empire? Why would Larry Bird risk his legacy? The fear of being seen as controversial or risky keeps Activist Athletes from voicing activist positions. I fear that the race for corporate dollars not only silences athletes that might be politically motivated, but also discourages the modern athlete from even carefully examining controversial issues of the day.
That said, Kobe Bryant, who was dropped by several sponsors after allegations arose as to sexual battery, seems to have now been forgiven by corporate America for the time being . . .