Former NBA great Bill Bradley described the day he chose his political affiliation like so:
“I remember the exact moment that I became a Democrat. It was the summer of 1964; I was an intern in Washington between my junior and senior year in college. And I was in the Senate chamber the night the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed that desegregated public accommodations in America…And I became a Democrat because it was the party of justice. It was Democrats that stepped forward that evening in the Senate and cast their vote that washed away the stain of segregation in this country.”
To be fair, there was bipartisan support for the Civil Rights Act, and the opposition was more regional than along party lines. But that’s another conversation. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. Bradley was an academic, as well as an athlete. After graduating from Princeton, he put the New York Knicks on hold for two years so he could attend Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, where he earned his Masters.
After Bradley’s Hall of Fame career, he entered into politics and resumed his fight for racial equality, among other things. He even had a failed run for the White House in 2000.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then Lew Alcindor, refused to play for Team USA in the Olympics in 1968 in protest of the treatment of blacks. Now, he is the Global Cultural Ambassador for the United States (yes, it’s a real thing), and political author and columnist.
Other athletes, such as former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jack Kemp, went on to have successful political careers too. Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe also fought for social justice.
But that kind of political awareness took a hit over the last three decades.
Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant dominated the NBA landscape for most of that time. Neither of them ever made their political views that much of a public thing. Jordan allegedly said, “Republicans buy sneakers too” (though the veracity of that statement is questionable). Kareem called it “putting commerce over conscience.”
Maybe that’s because our history is one of muting our athletes. They’re there to entertain us with their physical prowess on the court, not stimulate us with the provocative thoughts of their mind. “Just shut up and play” tends to be the response of those who want to hide away from them. And you see that in the recent outrage many have against someone like Colin Kaepernick, who has chosen to take a knee during the national anthem in protest to the treatment of blacks.
We have seen some of the current NBA stars make their own kind of statements. Superstars LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony made a collective statement at the ESPYS:
James’ words, particularly were noteworthy:
We all feel helpless and frustrated by the violence. We do. But that’s not acceptable. It’s time to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, “What are we doing to create change?” It’s not about being a role model. It’s not about our responsibility to a condition of activism. I know tonight, we’ll honor Muhammad Ali, the G.O.A.T. To do his legacy any justice, let’s use this moment as a call to action to all professional athletes to educate ourselves, explore these issues, speak up, use our influence, and renounce all violence. And most importantly go back to our communities. Invest our time, our resources. Help rebuild them. Help strengthen them. Help change them. We all have to do better. Thank you.
In one sense, he was speaking to the national TV audience. But in another sense, he was speaking to a room of professional athletes. And even though he says, “It’s not about being a role model,” his words bear a stark contrast to ’90s superstar Charles Barkley’s “I’m not paid to be a role model” quote.
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. And the four were being role models and are being role models. And while there are plenty who would say, “It’s not just about what you say, it’s about what you do (and all four do plenty),” I would counter that saying something matters. Kids aren’t at home Googling the social work that their favorite athletes and NBA players do, so they need to hear it.
Whether it’s Curt Schilling considering a career in Republican politics or James endorsing Clinton for U.S. President, it matters. It matters that younger people feel enfranchised, motivated and empowered to make a difference. And yes, they do look to their athletes to see that.
This isn’t about the left/right or Democrat/Republican. It’s about kids sitting at home feeling enabled to make a difference if they do something. And if they see the world telling those athletes to shut up and do what they’re paid to do, the lesson kids take home is that they can’t. If LeBron James can’t make a difference, how is little 10-year-old Michael or Michelle going to?
Our next generation is learning from today’s more socially conscious athletes speaking out. We don’t need to worry about what “values” they’re learning. What we need to be concerned about is whether they can learn to value themselves.