Sports Activism: Then and Now

August, 2016

Recently, at the 2016 ESPY Award ceremony, NBA Superstars Carmelo Anthony; Chris Paul; Dwyane Wade and LeBron James opened the ceremony by presenting a heartfelt speech about the incidents in Orlando; Louisiana; Minnesota and Dallas.  They spoke about wanting to see an end to gun violence, an end to brutality by police in communities of color and pleaded for racial understanding.  To bring historical significance they invoked the names of sport athletes that were social activists like Jesse Owens; Jackie Robinson; Muhammad Ali; John Carlos and Tommie Smith; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; Jim Brown; Billie Jean King; Arthur Ashe and many others that paid a price by standing up for social causes they believed in. Chris Paul proclaimed that the group onstage will, 'follow in their footsteps.’  With so much money at stake in the sports industry, the question remains, Will they and can they stand by what they say?


Most of the before mentioned athletes had a stake in what they were doing because it had never been done before. They were pretty much the first athletes of color to do anything in the United States. They represented a whole race of people who were disenfranchised and marginalized by society at large. This extraordinary group knew that they had to succeed to lead the way and take the barrage of abuse so others can follow in their footsteps.

Fortunately, the modern day athlete doesn’t have to worry about that much anymore. Nowadays, most modern day sports figures worry about their branding and social media presence. The first true modern day superstar Michael Jordan said it best, “Republicans buy sneakers too”. This statement sums up how far sports has come. It’s not about color anymore - it’s about entertainment and revenue.


Critics point out that most of these athletes who came from humble beginnings, do not return to the communities they came from to help out financially or uplift the spirit of that area. If we are truthful, most athletes do help out their communities and it’s called taking care of their family and friends. Most of these professional sports figures who come from disenfranchised communities work hard to achieve their pre-eminent position and are motivated to get themselves and their family and friends the heck out of those environments as quickly as possible.  


We are asking these modern day athletes to be like the heroes of yesteryear and that is unrealistic. Those former athletes were meant for their time and the athletes today are meant for ours. The most that a modern day professional sports person can do is start a foundation, open a charter school, build or rehab a home, wear a protest t-shirt or help out with their time at a community center. That’s about it.

With so much money in sports and contractual obligations, it’s hard for any of these athletes do anything of significance because they are bound by these contracts and the restrictions that come with it.


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