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Tuesday, September 09, 2008
New tales of sport and free expression, Part III

The new Sports Illustrated reports on the involvement of a number of professional athletes as supporters and activists on behalf of both presidential candidates and suggests we are seeing the return of the activist athlete, thought dead-and-buried in the 1980s and 1990s by players more interested in commerce than politics. The piece is careful not to lump current political involvement with Muhammad Ali refusing military induction and almost going to jail. But the level of political awareness and involvement among athletes is rising.

A couple of thoughts on this. First, as the article notes, the nature of involvement has changed. It is less personal--it is not about protesting the draft because you have been drafted or about fighting Jim Crow because you could not stay with the rest of the team while you were in the Minor Leagues or about agitating for women's equality through the vehicle of sports. It also is somewhat less dramatic--it is less about bringing about major structural change (overturning the entire social system in the south and in the nation as a whole) than about working within the current system to produce desired outcomes (namely, electing the candidate of your choice).

Second, that actually reduces the risks of getting involved. Ali and other African-American activists were seen by many as "dangerous," precisely because the change they sought was so dramatic, which obviously would interfere with their business and endorsement opportunities. It seems unlikely that a player will lose endorsements or other business opportunities, or be shunned by fans, simply because he supports one or the other of the major-party candidates. Even a player who does take riskier and more significant stands--Carlos Delgado refusing to stand on the field for "God Bless America" as an anti-war protest--draws a lot of criticism, but also a lot of support for his stance.

Third is the media attitude towards athlete activism. One of the ironic (if not hypocritical) things about sports writers and columnists pushing athletes to become more involved is that writers and columnists were the harshest critics of activist athletes in the 1960s. A few years ago at a symposium on baseball and society, I saw a presentation analyzing the drumbeat of unrelenting and harsh criticism directed at activist Black athletes by Dick Young, a New York-based, nationally syndicated columnist who was at the height of his powers in the late 1960s. Now, those same media members decry the absence of athletes willing to get involved. But the media position provides further insulation--for every reporter who criticizes a player for taking a stand, another reporter likely will laud the efforts.

Finally, the very thing that purportedly made athletes reluctant to get involved--the substantial money and fame they now enjoy--is what they have been able to leverage in this new activism. Players get involved in large part by donating money and making endorsements and by becoming major fundraisers (NBA star Baron Davis for Obama, Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling for McCain).


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