April 9, 2009

Political Apathy in Sports

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When asked why he supported conservative and notorious racist Jesse Helms over Democrat Harvey Gantt in the 1996 North Carolina Senatorial race, Michael Jordan replied, “Republicans buy Nikes too.” And thus began the athlete’s 21st century business model: Dominate sport. Get endorsement contract. Obey the law … and stay out of politics.
Tiger Woods and LeBron James have followed this paradigm to perfection in becoming the wealthiest and most recognizable athletes of our generation. They and others like them all have an opportunity to influence the society by breaking down racial and gender barriers and by expressing their political views. Yet, they continually shy away from this responsibility for the sake of their reputation and their bank accounts.
There was a time when “political activist” and “athlete” were not mutually exclusive. We remember John Carlos and Tommie Smith for their black power salute at the 1968 Olympics and Billie Jean King for her defeat of Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes in 1973. Major League Baseball retired Jackie Robinson’s number because he broke baseball’s color barrier, not because he was a great player. Some have urged commissioner Bud Selig to do the same with Roberto Clemente’s “21” because of the outfielder’s efforts to fight poverty around the world. We remember Muhammad Ali as much for his spiritual conversion and political activism as for his boxing prowess. And, regardless of our feelings about the War in Iraq, we respect the late Pat Tillman for giving up a promising NFL career to serve his country.
No one is going to forget about Jordan, Woods and James anytime soon. They are fantastic players whose legendary achievements we should celebrate. Yet, do we really admire them when they make millions by endorsing Nike and, by extension, cheap foreign labor? Does James deserve our respect when, due to his ties with Nike, he refused to sign teammate Ira Newble’s letter to the Chinese government protesting the genocide in Darfur? Should we praise Woods for reciting an underwhelming and completely apolitical speech introducing the U.S. Naval Glee Club at President Obama’s inauguration?
As today’s players become corporate puppets, professional athletics loses its ties to the real world — to us, the spectators. It is a dangerous trend, which will stop only at the impetus of the athletes themselves.