cnnsi.com has been doing this new thing on their webpage. it's basically a list of something or other, set to a photo album of some sort. it starts on number 25 and then you have to click "next" to go through the list. for example, with the NBA draft last week, they went through the top 25 draft busts with a picture of each of the busts doing something incompetent or sorry. my favorite is a completely uninterested dennis hopson yawning on the bench.
anyways, in honor of the fourth of july, they did a photo essay on the 25 most revolutionary athletes of all time. obviously there's no hard and fast criteria when they put together this list, so it contains athletes ranging from hank aaron to tony hawk to arnold palmer to mia hamm. for me revolution implies sudden change, and i'm not sure that hank aaron or arnold palmer changed the way the game was played or how people percieved the sport in the way that tony hawk or mia hamm did, but whatever. also included on the list were john carlos and tommie smith, the olympic sprinters who did the black power salute on the medal stand.
being a sociologist, this kind of political activity is what i usually associate with the word "revolution". going through the list, there are at least 6 athletes (carlos/smith, celtics great bill russell, NFL great jim brown, tennis star arthur ashe, women's tennis pro billie jean king, boxing legend muhammad ali) that were outspoken in their activism for social justice issued (some others on the list like curt flood might be considered as activists by some, but i think it is a lot easier to be outspoken about making a fair wage than it is to be outspoken about the vietnam war or civil rights). while many of these names are among the patron saints of their sports, you will notice that none of these athletes have played in the last 25 years. and it got me thinking, where are the social activist athletes today? there are plenty of outspoken athletes, but none of them seem to stand for progressive issues.
jp and i talked about this the other day on the pop life radio show in regards to musical acts, and how it was weird to see jay-z try and stir up support at live 8. he spent about ten seconds reinforcing the message and he did so in a completely generic way. in other words, he really didn't understand the cause he was promoting. sure he wanted to get more aid to africa, but i doubt he understood how the world bank lent these countries the money knowing that they couldn't pay it back so that they could get other concessions down the line. jp and i speculated that record companies and publicists actively discourage people from taking any kind of political stance in fear of economic reprisal from the public. although i think that this fear is unwarranted, i do think that we see a trend of more political acts being marginalized. further more, those artists that are outspoken in their political activism are subject to sanctions such as less publicity efforts, etc. i.e. wal mart not stocking records of those artists that they deem controversial.
i suspect that a similar thing is happening in sports. sports franchises just don't want to deal with any possible public relations headaches caused by million dollar athletes complaining about racism. granted many athletes such as john rocker and carl everett who aren't afraid to speak their mind, often have extremely unprogressive comments, you almost never hear of an athlete speaking out about social justice issues. the only one i can think of is a few years back, steve nash wore a "peace now" shirt during warm ups of the NBA all star game, right when the iraq war was getting geared up. if i remember correctly, very few media outlets praised him publicly for taking some kind of stand against the war.
it works both ways however. i think that several people got tired of curt schilling when he publicly supported president bush and he got some flack for that. but no one really said much when tom brady made an appearance at the state of the union adress a few years ago.
bell hooks famously wrote "the personal is political". my interpretation of that is that the things that we do in everyday life, such as the movies we watch, the stars we adore, and for many, the sports that we follow are indicative of our political views and the way we want the world to be. while i definitely believe that, i am beginning to think that may be less true today than it was 10 years ago, as the corporate entities who control sports and entertainment exert considerably more pressure on the artists to not be political. it's a form of censorship if you think about it. and it is extremely unfortunate because these athletes are in a position to expose people to different perspectives since they are in the spotlight so much. two of the world's most recognizable sports stars, tiger woods and michael jordan are notorious for not having an opinion on anything except their respective sports. the thing is, they understand that if they were to say anything, they would be attacked by all sorts of people for speaking on things that they don't know about. which i've always thought is dumb. i mean we're all voting citizens, should i not say anything about politics because i'm not directly involved in it?
again, however, as is the case with jay-z, it needs to be a two way street. it's the athletes' or celebirty's responsibility to take some time to be informed about what's going on. and usually when we hear about an athlete being outspoken they are decidedly uninformed. but all the same, it's a shame that these people who have the potential to effect change, are not allowed to by the sports franchise establishment (or just don't want to, depending on what you think).
i know that this runs counter to general feeling that athletes shouldn't be viewed as role models but maybe you don't have to be a role model to be outspoken about social justice. if anything, this lack of social activist athletes is further proof of the layered discourse surrounding sports. that what happens in sports is related to the world around it.
anyways, i spent a lot of time thinking about this and i'm really interested to see what you people think. i know most of you don't leave comments, but i'm pleading with any of you who have an opinion on this thing to leave a comment. i think that this is a dialogue worth pursuing.