The second golden age of athlete activism has arrived – whether we are ready or not.
Stephen Curry’s strong comments about President Donald Trump this week – the most notable coming when he said he would agree that Trump was an “asset” if you removed the letters “et” – were the latest high-profile example of a sports star stepping outside of the billion-dollar bubble to address social concerns.
I was proud of Curry – the two-time NBA MVP who grew up in Charlotte and starred at Davidson College – for risking some of his sparkling reputation while wading into this fray. Maybe you were proud of him, too, particularly if you read his full comments about inclusion and diversity.
Many of us do want our sports stars to speak up – at least until they say or do something we don’t like. Then we want them to #SticktoSports – a Twitter hashtag that is making its way into the mainstream.
So should an athlete just take the millions and avoid taking controversial stands, as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods mostly did during the peaks of their own careers? Or should they speak up or kneel down, like LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick?
The answer is more complicated than you might think. Several well-known NASCAR figures, including NASCAR president Brian France, endorsed Donald Trump for president a year ago. Were you OK with that?
What about Kaepernick’s kneel-downs for the Star-Spangled Banner this past NFL season to protest the treatment of racial minorities? What about the half-dozen New England Patriots (at least) who have said they would skip the traditional trip to the White House to honor the NFL champion?
What about the fact that Tom Brady displayed a “Make America Great Again” Trump cap in his locker during the presidential campaign or that New England coach Bill Belichick wrote Trump a supportive letter on the eve of the election?
If you are OK with any of this, you have to be OK with all of it. You can’t cherry-pick the Constitution. As a democracy, we have the right to express ourselves without fear of being shipped to a prison camp in Siberia – and high-profile members of the sports world have that right just like anyone else.
Stick to sports? No way. You don’t just have to shut up and shoot, as some would have Steph Curry do. You get to have an opinion in America.
‘The Greatest’ and risk-taking
I applaud all of those actions listed above and the conversations they start in part because they remind me of the first golden age of athlete activism.
When Muhammad Ali died in 2016, he was widely lauded as one of the greatest, most socially aware and most beloved athletes of all time. But the truth was more complicated. Ali eventually became revered by nearly everyone as a saint-like figure late in his life, but that wasn’t the case for much of his actual career.
The man who called himself “The Greatest” refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War, saying famously “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong.” Ali sacrificed three years of his boxing prime to his principles and changed both his religion and his name – it was originally Cassius Clay, which he pronounced a “slave name.”
Ali declared in 1966 that he would not go to Vietnam and fight for his country. That prompted one of the most well-known sports columnists in America, a future Pulitzer Prize winner named Red Smith, to write in a New York newspaper: “Squealing over the possibility that the military may call him up, Cassius makes himself as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war.”
Ali was not the only one who debated the prevailing views of the time in the 1960s and 1970s. Arthur Ashe, Jim Brown, Billie Jean King and the U.S. Olympic sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith – who gave a black-power, closed-fist salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics – all bucked authority in different ways. That was a time when athletic activism rose to dizzying heights – and when the risks were far greater.
Ali, for instance, lost untold millions when he declared “conscientious objector” status. Curry’s comments, made to a San Jose Mercury News columnist partly in response to Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank calling Trump “a real asset” for America in a separate interview with CNBC, will likely lead to no harm whatsoever for Curry in terms of his endorsements and might even help him.
Not everyone wants a bullhorn
Not every athlete wants a platform for social issues.
Panthers star linebacker Luke Kuechly is as nice a guy as they come, but he studiously sticks to sports. Cam Newton openly admires Ali and has dipped a toe in the polarizing waters that Ali swam in for decades, but his off-field work is far more likely to include giving gifts to needy children in the Charlotte community while dressed as “Santa Cam” as opposed to grabbing a bullhorn and leaping into a political campaign.
That’s fine, too. Nobody should feel forced to make a statement on every issue. But if an athlete wants to open the ESPYs with a pro-“Black Lives Matter” commentary (like NBA stars James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul did in July), that is their right. If athletes speak out in favor of – or against – HB2, that is their right as well.
They aren’t robots. These athletes happen to be gifted with incredible athletic talent, and because of that we feel like we know them. Because of that, we listen more intently to them.
Not to speak out about anything controversial is the safest way to go, of course. Republicans – and Democrats – buy shoes, too, as well as Under Armour apparel. It is risky to come out on one side or the other, much like it is risky to go for it on fourth-and-1 or to take a 20-footer down a point at the buzzer.
But the greatest athletes aren’t just defined by their championships and their best statistics. Their legacies include what they did with their lives. How they lifted up not just their team, but their society.
So let athletes raise their voices. We all need to hear it – even if we sometimes would rather not.