New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh are among the athletes and coaches who said the following in a public service announcement for a nonprofit organization:
“I pledge to treat everyone with respect and dignity. I will not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind. I will speak up whenever I know discrimination is happening and I will stand up for victims.”
Speaking up and standing up – or in Colin Kaepernick’s case, taking a knee – are entry-level forms of activism, defined by dictionary.com as “the doctrine or practice of vigorous action or involvement as a means of achieving political or other goals, sometimes by demonstrations, protests, etc.”
High-profile sports figures like Brady and Harbaugh often are reluctant to join activists in the area of race, the battleground for the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE). Founded in 2015 by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, the organization’s goal is to improve race relations and drive social progress by harnessing the power of sports.
The mission is taboo to many fans, who believe race and sports are like oil and water – they don’t mix. Such fans want games to serve as an escape from real-life issues, not a reminder. They believe that athletes/coaches should refrain from unrelated comments and keep societal observations to themselves.
Or is that only when the topic is race?
I don’t recall any grumbling when nearly two dozen current and former NFL players took part in PSAs decrying domestic violence and sexual assault. Why is it OK for Eli Manning and John Lynch to take a stance against that issue, but not the issue of unarmed black men murdered by police?
Several players involved in the NO MORE campaign had personal experience, including NFL executive Troy Vincent (whose mother is a survivor of domestic violence) and Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay (whose mother was killed by an abusive partner). Gay has volunteered at a Pittsburgh shelter for battered women, which I imagine is universally applauded.
Support for Blue Lives Matter would be celebrated, too.
But if a player volunteered to help a Black Lives Matter organization, he would be bombarded with negative reaction that should be reserved for supremacist groups.
Three-time World Series-winning manager Tony La Russa is a renowned animal rights activist. NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon fights against world hunger. Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts and Patriots safety Patrick Chung visit Boston schools in an effort to curb bullying.
No one says those athletes should shut up and stick to sports. There’s no discussion on the merit of the causes. No one criticizes the athletes’ support or deems it inappropriate.
Only the subject of race triggers a hue and cry.
This is nothing new. Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Jackie Robinson and Jim Brown heard it when they advocated on behalf of blacks 50 years ago. So did Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos. But athletic activism faded and was replaced by individualism and materialism in the ‘80s as Michael Jordan took flight.
Jordan’s buddy Charles Barkley slam-dunked the notion of higher callings in a 1993 Nike commercial when he said “I am not a role model.”
Considering virtually everything that comes out of Barkley’s mouth – especially his ignorant and misguided analysis of racism – he’s correct. But, seriously, in the grand scheme of things, regardless of his views, activism or lack thereof, he’s absolutely wrong.
Everyone is a role model, a blueprint to be emulated or avoided depending on your perspective.
The only difference between athletes and ordinary folks is their platforms. Microphones and notepads aren’t stuck in our faces several days a week. Our utterances don’t travel around the world and back on a regular basis. We don’t have hundreds of thousands of followers on social media.
That doesn’t mean athletes are smarter or more insightful than average Joes and Janes. It just means they can have a larger impact … if they choose to make one.
Most use Jordan as the archetype, doing and saying nothing that might adversely affect their image. Derek Jeter and Tiger Woods are classic examples from that school. Even though MJ broke character last summer when he announced $1 million donations to the Institute for Community-Police Relations and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he has served as the perfect anti-activist role model throughout his professional life.
If an athlete or anyone else chooses to not join movements, fight for change or blast the status quo, so be it. They have every right to sit and watch from the sidelines, or make contributions that go undetected and unreported.
However, some individuals opt to get involved. And athletes’ celebrity shouldn’t inhibit their opportunity to express themselves, whether it’s their T-shirt, footwear or posture during the national anthem. Taking advantage of publicity is part of the American way.
Along with entertainers, athletes are among the most visible figures in our society, particularly black athletes. They are in a unique position to advocate on any number of issues, especially those that disproportionately impact people of color.
It would be great if white athletes embraced that fight as readily as they join others.
Taking a stand isn’t restricted to causes other than race.
And it’s not restricted to taking a knee, either.