During the 2007 ESPY awards in Los Angeles, mixing effortlessly with the likes of LeBron James, Maria Sharapova and the ubiquitous rappers was a well-built, nearly-bald black man from South Carolina who wasn't there to claim any crystal.
Rick Wade's background as a former Kennedy Fellow, Harvard grad and seminarian suited him well for his job that night as a political missionary of sorts. He had recently signed on as one of Barack Obama's senior advisers and had come to Tinseltown with one goal -- convince prominent athletes to get off the sidelines and endorse the junior senator from Illinois for president.
By all accounts, the Obama camp has had a stunning success unprecedented in American politics.
Obama's support group of at least 40 current and former NBA and NFL players, owners and coaches -- including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charles Barkley and (quietly) Michael Jordan -- surpasses any athlete-endorsement efforts by previous presidential candidates and dwarfs the commitments gathered by Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
Some athletes have simply written checks, others have hosted fundraisers and introduced Obama before huge crowds. They include: (from the NBA) Grant Hill, Baron Davis, Greg Oden, Ira Newble, coach Phil Jackson, Shane Battier, Etan Thomas, Adonal Foyle, Chauncey Billups, former Suns guard and Sacramento mayoral candidate Kevin Johnson and Gary Payton; (from the NFL) Emmitt Smith, Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, Bears coach Lovie Smith, Warren Moon, Ronnie Lott, and at least 20 other players and coaches.
"At the ESPYS I had so many athletes asking, "How can I help?" "How do I get involved in politics?'," says Wade. "I think it's a result of the state our country is in today, the issues, the candidate, the timing. They want to be engaged."
So what took them so long?
Since the wrenching civil rights and Vietnam era, memorialized in sports by the black-fist protest of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, most of our nation's high-profile lockerrooms have been filled by complacent incurious millionaires more concerned with marketing their image than in knowing the score.
My epiphany came in 1996 during the Clinton-Dole presidential race, when the handsomely oblivious PGA Tour star, Fred Couples, after walking off the 18th green of Fort Worth's Colonial Country Club, told me with a shrug: "I've never voted in my life. I've never registered to vote."
More will remember when Michael Jordan, in 1990, at the height of his intergalactic fame, declined to support Charlotte's black mayor, Harvey Gantt, in his run for the U.S. Senate against race-baiting demagogue Jesse Helms, infamously explaining, "Republicans buy sneakers too." (In fairness, Jordan later quietly contributed to Gantt, in 1996, and has now given $12,100 to Obama, according to federal campaign contribution records.)
But Obama's candidacy has clearly motivated many athletes to reject the popular notion that political activity by athletes somehow taints them in the marketplace.
"Several athletes at the ESPYS wanted to talk with their attorneys or agents before they committed [to Obama]," says Wade, "but I didn't get a lot of push-back about their fear of consequences."
Even sports agents seem less inclined to think that political activity is the kiss of death for their clients. Casey Wasserman, CEO of Wasserman Media Group, a global sports marketing firm that represents some 500 athletes, says: "I don't see a downside [for our clients]. Sports is still a unifying force in our country, and people really identify with athletes -- far more than with actors or musicians. There's something authentic and accessible about them. You can buy the shoes they wear."
NBA Commissioner David Stern, who has given nearly a million dollars to Democratic candidates since 1984 (including $4,600 for Hillary Clinton in 2007), thinks political activity by NBA athletes may actually enhance their image. "I think it's a good thing and sends a message to our young fans," he told me. "Despite the divided nature of America politically, I think fans will respect our players."
Well, perhaps in the more liberal NBA.
When former Dallas Cowboys icon Emmitt Smith introduced Obama last February at Dallas' Reunion Arena the racially mixed crowd of 17,000 went endzone crazy for their local hero. But within hours, on a Dallas TV station's website, among many Obama raves was this Cowboys fan's reality check: [from "C Rob"] "This really disappoints me. I thought Emmitt was smarter than to get wrapped up in the hype this false promise maker throws out. I have no respect for him any more."
Former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, now a commentator for NBC, publicly endorsed Obama during the heated Pennsylvania primary, but he's not so sure active players should wade too deeply into politics.
"We've all seen the people who got their hands slapped," says Bettis, who also gave $2,000 to Bush-Cheney in 2003. "The Dixie Chicks got ostracized for their anti-Bush comments....After Katrina, should athletes have spoken out more? That could have been career suicide.
"Our window as athletes, as far as earning potential, is very very short," continues Bettis. "The practical thought is...while I'm playing, make sure I'm not ruffling America's feathers. I don't see the corporate sponsors as the issue. It's the fan base. It's not like the corporation says, he's a Democrat, so we won't use him. They're thinking, what's his Q score? If the fans don't like you, you're not very valuable."
Present company excluded, for the vast majority of professional athletes political activism is not even under consideration. Not for fear of retribution, suggests Abdul-Jabbar, but of simply reading beyond the sports section.
"They don't have the same sense within them of a need for change," says the former Los Angeles Times blogger, author and jazz historian. "They're just unaware. They're isolated and very comfortable with where they are.
"I remember on the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball that some players, some black players, didn't even know who he was. To me that was shocking, startling, that they would be so ignorant. But if you asked most NBA players today, most wouldn't know that their league was segregated in its first three years of existence."
On most teams, like the Steelers, according to Bettis, the unspoken rule is to not bring up politics. But that attitude usually filters from the top down.
When I approached the San Antonio Spurs, a button-down organization owned by mega-Republican contributor Peter Holt, about interviewing some players for this article, public relations director Tom James got so spooked that he replied: "not going to spring you on anyone without warning them first on a topic like this... I'd need a couple of days to talk to the players/coaches you'd want to interview."
Topic like this? Couple of days?
I was then told not to show up for the Spurs practice session, that James would ask if the players wanted to comment. Unsurprisingly, none were, um....found.
On the Phoenix Suns, however, a veteran team led by a Canadian (Steve Nash) opposed to America's invasion of Iraq, p.r. director Julie Fie had no problem offering up politically-engaged, Duke graduate Grant Hill.
"Most of us were talking about Obama's powerful speech on race today," Hill told me the day of Obama's acclaimed March 18th address. "Our coaches are very outspoken on things like race and politics." But he understands why many athletes are less vocal than they might have been in the Sixties. "Everyone wants to compare our generation to the civil rights era," says Hill. "It's not an excuse, but the times of Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor and Muhammad Ali are not what we've experienced. To demand that today's athletes do what they did is a little much."
For some, requiring anything of athletes beyond their sweat is a little much.
"Many of them are still children, mentally and emotionally," says University of Southern California professor Todd Boyd, author of "Young, Black, Rich and Famous." "I have vehemently disagreed with the notion that they should be role models. It's not an athlete's job to raise your child. I think they've put an unfair burden on them."
Boyd and University of Texas history professor Leonard Moore, both of whom study the intersection of sports, race and culture and have taught college athletes for years, suggest that many athletes' path toward political apathy is almost pre-ordained from middle school.
"Athletes get on a conveyor belt at an early age," says Moore, who once taught African-American history at LSU. "Then they're often isolated from other students at largely-white colleges. They get white handlers. Pretty soon we don't know who they stand for. And what you stand for depends on where you've been sitting."
Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and LeBron James have "for lack of a better word," Moore says, "sold out. I tell my students that if you have a ton of money, you're independently wealthy, and can't speak out, then you're still a slave."
Four athletes who have broken this mold hardly disprove the notion that marketers shy away from political activists. None is a marquee player, nor particularly rich (compared to teammates), nor a familiar face on TV.
John Amaechi, British and gay, played five years in the NBA and came out in his book last year, Man in the Middle. Outspoken Darfur activist Ira Newble, forward for the Lakers last season, once circulated a letter to China president Hu Jintao among his then-Cleveland Cavaliers teammates concerning China's human rights violations. Nike-sponsored LeBron declined to sign. Six-year Washington Wizards center Etan Thomas eloquently opposes the death penalty and the Iraq occupation. And Orlando Magic center Adonal Foyle, from the tiny Caribbean island of Canouan, founded the organization Democracy Matters and lobbies for, of all things, campaign finance reform.
Talk about role models. Why wouldn't Nike or Gatorade leap for these strong, intelligent, witty, international, committed, throw-it-down black guys?
Can't you see 30-second spots -- Foyle's hey-mon island lilt, Newble at the Darfur refugee camps -- riffing off America's historic presidential race and cajoling the hip-hop generation to vote. Call it the "Apathy Sucks" campaign.
The ironic thing here, from the crassly commercial point of view, is that social activism sells these days. Kids love causes. Witness the rise of so-called "conscious rap," in which artists such as Kanye West, Nas, Common and Talib Kweli have gone beyond the misogynistic sewer to address everything from Katrina to Bill O'Reilly.
Yes, Charles Barkley and Professor Boyd have it right, up to a point. No athlete should have to walk on eggshells throughout his life for fear that 12-year-olds will hear an errant f-bomb. But neither should athletes have society's permission to be clueless and disengaged from the world around them simply because they entertain us.
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