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Dan Treadway Headshot

What Ever Happened to the Activist Athlete?

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As baseballs took flight last Monday in the Arizona night sky, the crowd was dazzled.

The home run derby is one of the more remarkable spectacles in all of athletics. At it's very best, the derby serves as a celebration of the mortal limits of power when combined with instincts.

And there are few athletes on the planet that are as powerful and instinctual as Boston Red Sox slugger Adrian Gonzalez.

In the final round of the exhibition, Gonzalez tied a home run derby record by hitting 11 balls over the fence at Chase Field, only to fall to Robinson Cano, who would hit a record 12.

The performance from Gonzalez was remarkable yet somewhat unexpected.

Unexpected not because it was an out of the ordinary performance for the first baseman--Gonzalez is among the most prolific home run hitters in all of Major League Baseball--but because he had previously made statements in May of 2010 indicating that he may boycott the All-Star festivities in Arizona altogether in protest of SB 1070, a controversial law passed to stem illegal immigration in Arizona that many felt may have racist implications.

"If they leave it up to the players and the law is still there, I'll probably not play in the All-Star Game," Gonzalez told AOL Fanhouse more than a year ago. "Because it's a discriminating law."

The statement was noteworthy, given the extreme dearth of high-profile athletes willing to go public with their views on controversial issues. But while Gonzalez's statement was big news at the time, as the months passed, it was mostly forgotten, apparently even by Gonzalez himself.

The day after the All-Star game, Gonzalez told XX 1090 Sports Radio in San Diego that he in fact never considered skipping the contest, and that his original statement was misquoted. Regardless, Gonzalez's reluctance to make a stand by boycotting the All-Star game was very much in line with a growing trend in athletics.

We're no longer living in the age of Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe and most definitely not Muhammad Ali. All of these athletes were at the very top of their sports, and understood that they had the power to induce real, meaningful social change by virtue of their platform as notable professional athletes. While in the 1960s, Muhammad Ali went public expressing his disagreement with the Vietnam War, today, the most significant political statement made recently by a current professional athlete was uttered by the grossly misinformed Luke Scott of the Baltimore Orioles, who openly questioned the legitimacy of President Barack Obama's birth certificate, his logic being, "If they can counterfeit $100 bills, I think it's a million times easier to counterfeit a birth certificate." And even then, Scott is closer to being demoted than being notable.

So why are there so few prominent American professional athletes today that are willing to use their prominence in the same manner as a Kareem Abdul Jabbar or a Billie Jean King?

Granted there are plenty of athletes involved in charitable causes, and these are certainly noble, but there is hardly a premium of notable athletes today who are willing to voice their opinion on controversial issues.

Are they merely less informed and less passionate? Hardly. The stereotype of the "dumb jock" is quickly diminishing. More and more professional athletes today are writing books, being nominated for Rhodes Scholarships and either graduating with degrees or going back to school to attain them.

Is it because the state of affairs in athletics has advanced socially to the extent that there are simply not enough ample opportunities for players to speak out against injustice? Also not the case. There continues to be rampant homophobia in many sports, and most major athletes have either been mum on the subject, or, in Kobe Bryant's case, perpetuated stereotypes by using homophobic slurs in frustration. While athletes such as Esera Tualo in the NFL, and John Amaechi in the NBA have come out as homosexuals after retiring, there has yet to be an active athlete in any major American sports to do the same. In recent weeks, Hall-Of-Famers Charles Barkley and Michael Irvin have gone public defending gay athletes, and they should certainly be commended for this, but the sad truth is that the scope of their words are not nearly what they would have been had they come out with similar statements during their playing days.

It seems that the main reason the general public doesn't know what personal views top professional athletes hold is because they in fact likely have very rarely heard the athletes utter a sentence that wasn't constructed in some manner by a public relations department. Yes, there is greater media coverage and access in sports than ever before, but when top professional athletes speak today, they don't do so on behalf of themselves but rather on behalf of Nike, Coca-Cola and/or McDonald's. And they are often paid tens of millions of dollars in exchange for their allegiance and as such, these corporations aim to protect their investment. That investment being the athletes image, which is most valuable when it is adored by the widest spectrum of people. Politics by nature, are divisive, and because of this, it doesn't benefit large corporations to purport them, particularly through their employees.

Did Tiger Woods ever speak out about the mostly unfair media treatment against him? Of course not. Rather, he attempted to maintain his brand by paying millions of dollars to PR firms and even acquiring the services of former Bush aide Ari Fleischer, who knows how to cover up a mess, to help him re-assemble his public image. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think Muhammad Ali surrounded himself with former Nixon employees in order to make it back to the top after refusing to fight in Vietnam.

Athletes such as Bill Russell and Arthur Ashe were in a unique position while they were in their prime, a position that hasn't existed in athletics for several decades. They were at once not reliant on corporate endorsements, but at the same time, too indispensable to their respected sports to be ever truly at-risk of being removed. Russell once referred to the city of Boston as a "flea market of racism" during his playing career, and even went so far as to declare that he was a Celtic but not a Boston Celtic. The Celtics stuck with Russell regardless because he was arguably the best post-player of all-time, but there's a good chance Nike or Adidas would not have been as loyal. If Bill Russell were playing today would he have risked potentially lucrative endorsements by speaking out against the current state of race-relations in the United States? One would like to think this is a certainty, but the sad fact is that it is not.

Granted prominent professional athletes have no responsibility to be vocal -- that's not what they signed up for -- but the effect they can have on the public consciousness when they are should not be understated. For example, imagine if Ray Lewis, perhaps the toughest guy to ever play in the NFL, spoke out in favor of gay rights? It would likely cause many, particularly the stereotypical machismo football fanatic who by nature rejects gay lifestyles, to entirely re-evaluate their stance on homosexuality.

There may once again be a time when a top athlete, such as Adrian Gonzalez, uses his platform in order to promote a social agenda, and at that time, people will surely argue over whether it is the athletes place to bring attention to issues outside of athletics. But that debate is for another day, and unfortunately is seems that day, for the forseeable future, will not come.

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