Sports

Jocks Without Justice, Or Silenced Performers?

David Leonard

To ignore this context of systematic repression and to focus on money and the nature of sports culture as the only culprits is to tell just a small part of the story.


Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan at the 1992 Olympic games.

In 1968, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood before the world in protest against colonialism within the United States and throughout the world. During their Olympic medal ceremony in Mexico City, Smith and Carlos raised their fists in the Black Power salute, using their platform to protest their own experiences with racism inside and outside of sports, as well as the widespread persistence of poverty, inequality, and discrimination. The salutes prompted outrage from the U.S. delegation, sports writers, and the American pubic, and Smith and Carlos were quickly sent home from Mexico. The U.S. Olympic delegation warned others that any forms of protest would be met with severe punishment, sending a message to all athletes, particularly African Americans, that a clear choice existed between being an athlete and being political.

Twenty-four years later at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan stood on a similar stage, awaiting their gold medals. Times had changed much since 1968, yet racism, inequality, and poverty remained unfortunate realities within sports and the outside world. However, Barkley and Jordan chose not to use their platform, their global celebrity, to protest American racism or sweatshops, but to take a stand against the evil of empire of Reebok. These famous Nike spokesmen were upset and conflicted by the Reebok symbol appearing on their team sweat suit, so Barkley and Jordan were forced to take a stand. Trading in a raised fist for corporate loyalty, Barkley and Jordan draped American flags over their shoulders, protecting their swoosh identity under the guise of patriotism. In 24 years, the image had gone from athletes risking their careers, even their lives, in the name of principles and politics, to silence and compliance in the name of global capitalism and endorsement deals.

In the context of this change and the most recent Olympics, in which the United States' basketball team had trouble filling its squad, and Belgian tennis star Kim Cljisters refused to participate because of sponsorship conflicts, the debate concerning the political activism of athletes carries on -- have athletes become less willing to use their names and platforms for political causes? Were the 1960s the Golden Age of jocks fighting for justice? Were the 1990s the era of apolitical athletes, driven more by personal glory, bling-bling, and fame than community empowerment? Alternatively, is this narrative of change pure nostalgia for a politicized time in sports that never existed? With equal attention to why athletes shirk their responsibility as political role models, there remains a persistent question as to what happened to "jocks for justice."

Given the shifting place of politics evident in sports from 1968 to 2004, it's worth wondering where athletes who revolted against social injustices have gone, and what has come of those athletes who once used their platform as a basis for political activism. Kelly Candaele and Peter Drier, in "Where are the Jocks for Justice?" (The Nation, 28 June 2004), provide some answers to these difficult questions. Candaele and Drier acknowledge that contemporary athletes do "visit kids in hospitals, start foundations that fix inner-city playgrounds, create scholarship funds to help poor students attend colleges and make commercials using kids to stay in school and say no to drugs." To them, however, these activities are not "real politics," nor signs of a progressive agenda. Candaele and Drier argue that athletes no longer speak out or participate in social movements/actions concerning, for example, war, sweatshops, racism, or poverty.

The time in which athletes use their celebrity or personal capital to voice political dissent appears dead to these authors, killed in large part by economics: "Contemporary activism hasn't infiltrated the locker rooms as it did in the past, in large measure because of dramatic improvements in athletes' economic situation... Back then, many professional athletes earned little more than ordinary workers." The promise of lucrative contracts and the allure of endorsements have gone a long way to depoliticizing today's athletes. The authors equally cite the shifting demographics within the sporting world, with greater numbers of fans drawn from suburban America and throughout the world, and the increased power of unions, as additional explanatory factors. Regardless of the specific causes, Candaele and Drier lament the shrinking voice of political dissent, offering a nostalgic view of years past in the context of a contemporary world of sports defined by entourages, endorsement deals, money, money, and more money.

While certainly engaging, this article and the larger discourse erase much of the story. Ignoring the role of the media, and the absence of political dissent within all walks of American life, Candaele and Drier fall into the hegemonic trap of locating the social (or those of progressive social movements) within the bodies of black men. One of the greatest oversights in "Where are the Jocks for Justice?" is the absolute erasure of state violence. The reduction of activism to individual choice (selling out) ignores context and history. Threats of state violence (imprisonment; murder) are nothing new (evident in the history of COINTELPRO, the post-9/11 attacks on civil liberties, and frequent excoriation of those critical of the United States as "disloyal, un-American terrorists"), demonstrating the absurdity of focusing exclusively on the inaction of athletes. To ignore this context of systematic repression and to focus on money and the nature of sports culture as the only culprits is to tell just a small part of the story. Yet, repression and surveillance is not the exclusive province of the state, with citizens and owners of capital filling similar roles.

One such example occurred in 1991, when Craig Hodges, then a member of the NBA champion Chicago Bulls, took particular advantage of his team's celebratory visit to the White House. Hodges, who had in the past criticized less socially conscious black athletes and denounced professional sports teams for the lack of minorities in management positions, used this forum to protest persistent racism. Donning a dashiki, Hodges, rather than handing the President the customary jersey, gave the President a letter demanding him to be more active in fighting injustices against African Americans. Hodges, at the peak of his career, found himself out of the league within a year.

Others have followed in Hodges footsteps to equal furor. Last year, Steve Nash (at the time a guard for the Dallas Mavericks) wore a T-shirt to the NBA All-Star Media Day that said: "No War: Shoot for Peace." The backlash was immediate, with one commentator writing that he should "shut up and play." Recently, Carlos Delgado (Toronto Blue Jays) announced that he would not stand for "God Bless America" because of his opposition to the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. "It's a very terrible thing that happened on Sept. 11. It's (also) a terrible thing that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq," Delgado said at the time. "I just feel so sad for the families that lost relatives and loved ones in the war. But I think it's the stupidest war ever. Who are you fighting against? You're just getting ambushed now. We have more people dead now after the war than during the war," he said. "I don't support what they do. It's just stupid." Delgado, a native of Puerto Rico, also opposed the U.S. military bases in his homeland. As with others, his political choices have resulted in books, name-calling, and talk-radio callers accusing him of being a member of al-Qaeda -- for all we know, he could be under federal surveillance. Given this environment and repressive policy shifts (embodied in the Patriot Act), it is not surprising that jocks for justice have all but disappeared in recent years. What is surprising, however, is that so few people are willing to discuss this context.

Another ignored factor is the importance of race and nationality. The history of sport demonstrates how teams and fans are less tolerant of athletes of color that vocalize their political beliefs. Deemed "locker room lawyers," politicized black athletes like Hodges have been shown the door for expressing their politics. Moreover, black athletes function within the marketplace as sources of entertainment for predominantly white fans and ownership, mandating subservience and silence. Jackie Robinson was loved because of his accomodationist approach to racism, and the distaste for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, given his expressed radicalism, demonstrates the influence of race on celebrity and politics. Also, given the increasing numbers of "foreign" athletes, especially in a post-9-11 America, it is not surprising that few athletes are willing to express their political beliefs. The consequences for deviating from acceptable roles is similarly specific to both race and nationality.

The absence of politically engaged and vocal athletes is equally reflected in the shifting economics of sports. Professional athletics is big business, with a number of teams owned by transnational corporations. Silence is not exclusively a result of financial rewards for athletes, but allegiance/subservience to powerful owners; "masters" who often give big dollars to politicians and go to every length to protect their dollars are less than tolerant of politicized athletes. For example, owners Rupert Murdoch and Jerry Colangelo give substantial amounts of money to the Republican Party, which obviously creates a difficult environment for any athlete/employee who might want to challenge current policies. Athletes who protest social injustice threaten their bosses' pocket books, influence, and power, which means that those who use their platform are always under the threat of losing their jobs.

Finally, it must be said that the article in The Nation, and the wider discourse surrounding the declining visibility of politicized athletes, fits within a larger context concerning the eroding values of sports. It reflects widespread arguments that, with the increased visibility and domination of (predominantly and particularly black) athletes, they (along with their greedy owners and the media) have transformed the world of sports from a place of values and social consciousness, to one of self-indulgent, spoiled brats. To understand the complaints surrounding the absence of jocks on the frontlines of social justice movements, one must recognize the racial undertones embedded in this discourse.

Moreover, if one is going to use history as the backdrop for interrogating the absence of political stances and involvement amongst today's athletes, it is crucial to use this same history to examine the lessons of the past on today's athletes. As Candaele and Drier write, "During the 1960s and '70s some prominent athletes used their celebrity status to speak out on key issues, particularly civil rights and Vietnam. The most well known example, boxing champion Muhammad Ali, publicly opposed the war and refused induction into the Army in 1967, for which he was stripped of his heavyweight title and sentenced to five years in prison... Today he is among the world's most admired people, but at the time sportswriters and politicians relentlessly attacked him." Virtually all of these activist athletes faced repercussions because of their outspokenness. In addition to the experiences of Ali, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos, outfielder Curt Flood was run out of the MLB after he sued the league for, in effect, practicing slavery, while a host of unknown athletes lost scholarships and professional careers because of their political beliefs. In fact, professional and student athletes, many of whom were black, lost a lot because of their political activism. Similar to their non-athletic brethren, the state (and its allies) sent a clear message in the wake of the 1960s revolutionary spirit. Challenges to hegemony would be met with violence and face severe repercussions. The legacy of the 1960s is as much about repression and control as it is about the activism of Smith and Carlos.

The stories of the 1968 Olympics -- Smith, Carlos, Ali, Curt Flood, and Craig Hodges -- serve as a constant reminder to today's athletes that a career in athletics, especially to those who are African American, mandates silence on issues of race, politics, and social justice. So while the declining visibility of politically engaged athletes reflects the increased financial rewards available in sports, as well as a number of societal changes, it simultaneously demonstrates the persistent history of repression inside and beyond the world of sports.


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