It isn’t the responsibility of sports heroes to stand up against injustice. But is it ever sweet when they do.
Lord knows athletes should never be compelled to take a public stand on political, social or cultural issues, any more than actors, musicians or sports writers. They are entertainers first and foremost. Athletes possess a very specific physical skill set. Most have won the genetic lottery in one way or another. Beyond that, they may be remarkable or unremarkable, geniuses or dolts, humanitarians or cold-hearted narcissists or something in between, sort of like the rest of the human race.
But sometimes it is a very good thing when sports heroes show they are interested in something beyond brand management.
A case in point is the events of the past few weeks, when in response to the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the choking death of Eric Garner in New York—and the subsequent lack of indictments for both of the officers involved—African-American athletes in the NBA and NFL have taken at least a symbolic stand. Whether it was wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts during warm-ups or offering the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture during player introductions, it mattered.
It mattered because—and here’s where we get into the uncomfortable territory of old white guys telling young black athletes what they ought to do and what they ought to think—the position achieved by African-American players in those two sports, and the amount of economic clout they possess, put them in a nearly unique position to make their point.
But don’t listen to me. Listen to Hall of Famer Jim Brown: “One of the things that I’ve always not liked is that modern players have always concentrated on dancing in the end zone and BS’ing when serious things were going on in this country that needed to be changed,” he said in a recent interview conducted at the Cleveland Browns’ practice facility. “So my opinion is that when these young people stand up and risk their careers, that’s a good sign for everything and all of us. And that they are using themselves properly by their approach. They have the power to bring attention to the issues.”
Brown is in the cantankerous-elder-statesman phase of his career, and it’s not like he’s without skeletons in his closet. But when it comes to using sport as a platform to influence the machineries of power, he knows of what he speaks.
After retiring in his prime in 1966 following a nonpareil career as a running back with Cleveland, Brown began following a unique path. In the midst of the civil rights movement, at the same time as the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party were gaining traction, Brown formed the Negro Industrial and Economic Union. His idea was that the only way to change the system was to get a hand on the means of production. Play the capitalist game—and win.
In addition to embarking on an acting career, he became involved in business, including boxing promotion, where with his partner Bob Arum he staged the 1966 fight between Muhammad Ali and George Chuvalo at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto—a bout that had been run out of the United States because of Ali’s stance against the draft for the Vietnam War.
The next year, Brown convened what became known as the Cleveland Summit, where a group of prominent African-American athletes including Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor heard Ali make his case and then offered him their moral—and, significantly, financial—support.
A year after that, John Carlos and Tommie Smith were raising their black-gloved fists on the Olympic podium in Mexico City, an image which still stands as the pinnacle of athlete activism.
No one has to be the next Carlos and Smith, let alone the next Ali. And the fact is that no athlete since has been willing to take that kind of risk. Instead, those who followed the path blazed by Brown, Ali, Curt Flood and Jackie Robinson, while becoming more wealthy and more powerful, while being able to control their destinies in ways of which past athletes could only dream, largely lost their nerve.
It’s not entirely fair to single out Michael Jordan, except for the fact that during the time when he may well have been the most recognizable person on Earth, he made a point of doing nothing that might impede the sale of the sweatshop-made sneakers he endorsed.
He didn’t have to do more. But he could have done more.
Unlike their forebears, LeBron James and Co. aren’t risking much of anything. Just as when they rose to rid the NBA of Donald Sterling, they are operating from a position of power. It’s their game in every way that matters.
Still, it is a beautiful thing to hear their voices.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.