Advocates of pro athletes using their platforms to advance social causes are thrilled to see an awakening of conscience nationally regarding the deaths of young black men at the hands of police in dubious circumstances. The symbolism of their stances can be important.
It is also asking a lot.
It is instructive to recall the words of the best sports-marketing pitchman of all, Michael Jordan. When notorious race-baiting Sen. Jesse Helms (R-Klan) in 1990 was running for his fifth term in Congress against an African-American candidate, Harvey Gantt, Jordan, aligning with his role as Nike shoe salesman rather than advocate for political change in his native North Carolina, avoided taking sides.
“Republicans,” he was reported to have told a friend, “buy shoes too.”
Gantt lost the race, and again in 1996. Jordan lost too, by never shaking the apolitical tag until at least 2012, when he helped with a $20,000-a-plate fundraiser for President Obama. Not exactly a provocative position for an African-American entrepreneur. Jordan almost always confines his public provocations to the basketball court.
Then again,”lost” is a relative term. Partly by avoiding alienating any constituency with his political/social views, he became the wealthiest athlete in U.S. sports history largely via his endorsements. He is rich enough to be owner of the NBA Charlotte Bobcats, who at 6-16 are again miserable, as has often been the case in his tenure. But that’s another column.
Jordan has never risked stepping forward in matters beyond sports, as have other prominent African-American athletes such as Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe and most importantly, Muhammad Ali. Frankly, in a time of finely crafted, lucrative media deals, it just doesn’t pay.
That is is often the case with honesty in pursuit of truth.
But Jordan’s profile is practically bulletproof. That is not the case for 99 percent of athletes on major pro sports team rosters.
Here’s what any agent worth his diamond-studded cufflinks is going to tell a typical NFL player: “Look, the average length of a career is around three years. You think you’ll play 17 years, like Charles Woodson, but there’s a whole lot more one-year guys than 17-year guys. Your window for earning big money is incredibly small, and you’ll likely never do as well for the rest of your life.
“If you want to publicly support a controversial cause because it is truly important to you, good for you. Just know that many advertisers, many fans and many future employers don’t look for trouble.”
Chances are improving that there are more companies today willing to take risks with opinionated athletes as long as they stay away from civil and criminal misbehavior. Charles Barkley doesn’t seem to have any trouble showing up in about half the TV commercials in America today.
Locally, Beacon Plumbing can’t get enough of Marshawn Lynch telling the world its shop “will definitely clear those clogged drains.” Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman are on TV more than screen dust. But as the clamor grows following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, so does the urgency for statements among athletes.
The subject of social activism came up this week at Seahawks HQ. Even though Sunday is the most anticipated game of the season against the listing dreadnought 49ers, it’s getting harder to ignore the shouting that has gone global, even as it intrudes upon the games that some fans think should stay detached from the world and its ills.
Sherman, while offering an eloquent rationale for speaking up, didn’t sound as if he would make an observable demonstration.
“It’s something that everybody has their own choice to make,” he said. “It’s our duty as a nation to come together in these times to recognize it. I don’t know how much one individual gesture, or even a team or a lot of guys making gestures, that are very respectable and send out a message.
“I think that being together and being great role models as players is our duty. It’s the thing we can do. Not going out there and doing things that aren’t reputable. I think the guys that are making a stand are admirable.”
But will Sherman risk potential alienation?
“I feel like every time I make a personal statement, they think I’m being an individual and trying to bring attention to myself,” he said. “I think the best thing we can make as players is to be great role models.”
That would be a no.
Russell Wilson was a little more direct, but also fell back to the idea of role model as sufficient.
“Yes, I think if you have the opportunity to make a certain stand, you should,” he said. “As long as it doesn’t harm or disrespect anyone, I think it’s definitely something that can make a difference. A lot of people look up to us and a lot of people are inspired by us and what we can do and by the influence that we can have.
“Where my focus is all the time (is) just try to do the right thing, try to lead the right way and try to be a great role model for kids and for people in general. That’s why I did the whole ‘Why not you, pass the peace’ . . . it’s what can I do personally to fix certain situations.”
Wilson’s aim for his Why Not You? foundation was to raise awareness and funds for victims of domestic violence. But there’s no controversy with helping victims. The controversy is in prevention, which can mean some tough dialogue about DV with teammates, all NFL players as well as men everywhere. Demanding accountability for actions can make some people very uncomfortable, especially police, whose tactics are the object of protestors’ vitriol.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, a San Francisco native who grew up in the 1960s and has a much more experienced perspective, was sympathetic to the principles.
“The fact that there is a call out around the country is totally in order,” he said. “I think it’s totally in order — people have strong feelings about what’s going on, very well grounded feelings. Everybody wants to see change.
“Our guys are pretty outspoken guys. I trust that they speak on behalf of the feelings in their heart. They’ll make whatever decisions that they need to make, and if we need to consult on that, we will.”
Pressure is on in some quarters for athletes to stick their necks out, no matter the risks. But there looms a parallel question: Can young athletes fully immersed in the beginning of their pro careers be expected to be sufficiently knowledgeable on complicated subjects to provide an informed opinion? Or is what counts merely feelings?
Here’s one way for athletes to navigate the storm:
If you feel it, learn about it. Then, when asked, be as smart as you are honest. And if that scares people from giving you money, there will be many more who respect the courage of your convictions.