Deford: What's Wrong With Pro Athletes Taking A Stand?

Dec 10, 2014
Originally published on December 10, 2014 9:56 am

A common complaint I've long heard was that current athletes were selfish and not politically involved like their passionate forebears –– players like Jim Brown, Billie Jean King, Bill Russell and Arthur Ashe.

My response was, "Well, how many of the modern athletes' peers are especially engaged in social controversy?" It wasn't fair to compare the sensibility of the athletes of, say, 1995 or 2005 to those of 1965; the apt comparison is with other members of their own cohort.

Recently, however — especially with regard to racial issues — athletes have been speaking out again, just as many of their young contemporaries have become more engaged.

Those who would prefer that athletes just shut up and play seldom seem to mind that a lot of entertainers are outspoken. And really, is the average actor, like the average shopkeeper or the average dentist, any more or less qualified to express opinions?

But athletes carry the "dumb jock" label. And, of course, a lot of them simply aren't particularly interested in the wider world. It's all very nice to call up the memory of the likes of King and Brown and Russell and Ashe, but it's not as if the rest of athletic America back then was boldly speaking out. Looking at it overall, through the years, I'd say that athletes have been politically and socially engaged pretty much in tune with their fellow age group.

The athletes who seem to have been the most criticized recently are the five St. Louis Rams receivers who came out before a game with their hands up in the familiar pose of other Americans who disputed the grand jury decision in Missouri. Well, why not? It didn't interfere with the game.

Also, it's always wise to keep in mind that athletes are young and glamorous; they are primarily visible, and so it makes sense that they can be more effective employing actions rather than issuing statements. Remember the impact when LeBron James and some of his teammates wore hoodies in support of Treyvon Martin?

Athletes are famous; they can command our attention beyond the playing field in so many ways. And, of course, the ones who have made it to the major leagues also have the wherewithal to make a difference in so many different places.

There is, in fact, a perfect example right now where sweet charity could mix with cold commerce. The NBA just established its largest store outside the U.S., in Manila (because the Philippines is a country mad for basketball), but almost as soon as the doors to the emporium were opened, another terrible typhoon hit that unlucky land.

What a wonderful gesture it would be for the NBA players –– and the NBA itself –– to make Philippines relief a special social cause — not just a place to peddle NBA paraphernalia.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The conversation about race is very loud and very public in the United States. And after grand jury decisions in Missouri and New York, that conversation includes athletes, which is fine with our commentator Frank Deford.

FRANK DEFORD, BYLINE: A common complaint I've long heard was that current athletes were just selfish and not politically involved as were their passionate forbearers - players like Jim Brown, Billie Jean King, Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe. My response was, well, how many of the modern athletes' peers were especially engaged in social controversy? It wasn't fair to compare the sensibility of the athletes of, say, 1995 or 2005 to those of 1965. The apt comparison is with other members of their own cohort.

Recently, however, athletes have been speaking out again, just as many of their young contemporaries have also become more engaged. Those who would prefer that athletes just shut up and play seldom seem to mind that a lot of entertainers are outspoken. But athletes carry the dumb jock label. And, yes, a lot of them simply aren't particularly interested in the wider world. It's all very nice to call up the memory of the likes of King and Brown and Russell and Ashe, but it's not as if the rest of athletic America then was boldly speaking out as well.

Looking at it overall, through the years, I'd say that athletes have been politically and socially engaged pretty much in tune with their fellow age group. The athletes who seem to have been the most criticized recently are the five St. Louis Rams who came out before a game with their hands up in the familiar pose of other Americans who disputed the grand jury decision in Missouri. Well, why not? It didn't interfere with the game. Also, it's always wise to keep in mind that athletes are primarily visible. And so it makes sense that they can be more effective employing actions rather than issuing statements. Remember the impact when LeBron James and some of his teammates wore hoodies in support of Treyvon Martin? Or the I can't breathe T-shirts that James and other players have worn just these past few days?

Athletes are famous. And of course, the ones who have made it to the majors also have the wherewithal to make a difference in so many different places. There is, in fact, a perfect example right now where sweet charity could mix with cold commerce. The NBA just established its largest store outside the U.S. in Manila because the Philippines is a country mad for basketball, but almost as soon as the doors to the emporium were opened, once again another terrible typhoon hit that unlucky land. What a wonderful gesture it would be for the NBA players - and the NBA itself - to make Philippine relief a special social cause and not just a place to peddle NBA paraphernalia.

INSKEEP: The man who always speaks out, our commentator Frank Deford joins us every Wednesday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.