Sports Law Blog
All things legal relating
to the sports world...
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 . . .


Your post rings true and sad--gone are the days of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who as you may recall created a landmark moment in Olympic and Civil Rights Movement history at the 1968 Mexico City Games. Except for the "Dream Team" back in the '90s, it seems like hardly any of America's best professional athletes represent their country (I know there are some pro/amateur rules, but it does suck), much less their their political views.

Who among our athletes will raise their fists in protest of the current political situation today?

If they did, would it be controversial for political reasons (as was the case with Carlos and Smith) or for merely coporate endorsemnt reasons?

The corporate desire for bland, de-politicized (and some may argue, de-racialized) symbols is a big contributing factor. I hope that it's the main reason, and not that the current generation is too apathetic and apolitical--because there's a lot for young people today to care about and protest against.

Anonymous Dana Nguyen -- 3/31/2007 10:29 AM  

Today celebrities such as actors and musicians seem to have taken the lead from athletes in terms of social and political activism.

Anonymous Peter -- 3/31/2007 9:10 PM  

Musicians always have been at the forefront of social activism, probably even more so than athletes. Think Arlo and Woodie Guthrie or, in his own way and from a different perspective, Irving Berlin. And that trend obviously took off in the 1960s. Besides, popular music is the generational fault line--what the old generation (i.e., those in power) do not "get" about the younger generation. What was different then was that more athletes were involved in those same movements.

I think dre has hit on one important factor in the decline of athlete activism. But I think it is important to avoid the implication that athletes, especially African-American athletes, have some special obligation or duty to use their fame, fortune, power, and influence to take political stands. Jim Brown suggested as much of Michael Jordan several years ago.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 3/31/2007 11:07 PM  

Great post. I think there are several elements at work, including the ones you mention - corporate dollars, the desire to remain out of controversy . . .

But I have to ask - does the public WANT outspoken athletes?

Increasingly, we see that the public is more willing to accept whatever image the league markets - athletes like Gilbert Arenas who create their own cult of celebrity are increasingly rare in this day.

And one of the first criticisms of celebrities or athletes who speak out against a political or economic issue is that they are ill-informed, and thus ill-suited to be taking their position.

If you're an athlete, it's not hard to see that the easy path is just to stay quiet. One is shielded from criticism, bad publicity, can protect one's endorsements, and can avoid running afoul of the league.

So I would add a few factors to yours - first and foremost is the increased role of the league in marketing its own players.

This lessens the perceived need for players to express their own opinions, and when they do come out with strong stances, they risk rejection and criticism.

That said, I would like more players to speak out on issues. But I do think it takes more effort, and dare I say, courage, than it used to.

Blogger Satchmo -- 4/01/2007 11:53 AM  

Another factor may be the increasing consolidation of power in leage offices, particularly with the commissioners. It's now routine for players and coaches to be fined for even mild criticisms of the league. While it's unlikely a commissioner would fine a player for speaking out on a non-league-related political issue, there is nonetheless a culture of self-censorship within the leagues that punish any lack of conformity to the established marketing plan.

Blogger Skip -- 4/01/2007 9:07 PM  

Thought-provoking posts. It's interesting to note that the greatest social impact was made, not by activist athletes, but by those athletes who simply showed up and competed despite and often against the forces aligned against them, e.g. Jackie Robinson, Jessie Owens. This could be a product of changing social conditions: perhaps as things get better (or as the perception that things are getting better becomes entrenched) it takes more of a statement to make the public aware of injustices.

I am just naive enough to think that some things have gotten better, lessening, to an extent, the need for athletic activism when other venues for the promotion of good causes exist.

Athletes, now wealthier than any of their activists predecessors, may be reluctant to risk their good names and fortunes, but I would suspect that some use their fortunes to further just causes. Perhaps less consciousness-raising, such an approach need not be less effectual.

While not nearly as dramatic as gloved fists, in protest of "the current political situation," I seem to recall the reigning 2-time NBA MVP wearing an anti-war t-shirt.

Anonymous Starcher Manchin Caperton -- 4/01/2007 9:20 PM  

excellent posts. a few thoughts:

to dana, thanks for remembering perhaps my favorite activist athlete image ever, the tommie smith and john carlos black glove and fist salute during the national anthem in the 1968 olympics. what a powerful image even today, forty years later.

to peter and howard, do you think that artists and musicians are more apt to take political or controversial stands because they have less to lose in the corporate marketplace? are the activist musicians really speaking to one side of the generational fault line, and risking less in doing so?

also, to howard's point, i think it critical to avoid the implication that the athlete of color bears special activist responsibility. i think others would argue that point (like jim brown), but in the law school classroom, unless critical mass is acheived with minority students, it is difficult to avoid the "one person represents the views of the entire race" conundrum.

to satchmo and skip's points, i think you both directly confront a major problem by identifying the slickly marketed professional sports leagues today. the problem is the heavy handed disapproval of anything controversial that might make the leagues marketing efforts more difficult. fines for speaking out against referees or the league are frequently handed down. again, is this just league acquiesence to the corporate marketplace?

and to the question as to whether the general public WANTS outspoken activist athletes, i would have to agree with you that they probably do not. that said, kareem and muhammed ali faced serious backlash for their activism year's ago. today, i think both are honored, but ali lost year's on his career for his activism and opposition to the vietnam war.

finally, to the good governors/supreme court justice of west virginia, manchin starcher caperton, your post brings to mind one of my most respected nfl athletes, warrick dunn. as you probably know, dunn each year provides the funds to build a home for a single mother in memory of his own mother who was a police officer shot and killed in the line of duty. dunn goes about his charitable work in a mostly unheralded fashion and uses his fortune to do great work.

thanks for all of the great comments.

Blogger dré cummings -- 4/03/2007 3:26 AM  

AP Lawyers, the comprehensive reference of useful Law related information,articles. Find the best lawyers, attorneys and law firms in the US. Find the best Injury Lawyer, Divorce Lawyer, Criminal Lawyer, Accident Lawyer, Mesothelioma Lawyer, Medical Malpractice, Debt Consolidation, Nonprofit and other attorneys.

Visit at

Blogger USA Best lawyer directory -- 12/30/2008 7:08 PM  

Post a Comment