THE BLOG
12/09/2014 01:15 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

Number of Socially-Conscious Athletes on the Rise

Al Bello via Getty Images

It's refreshing to see more and more athletes taking a stand on social issues, both within and outside the context of sports.

Recently, NBA stars Derrick Rose and LeBron James wore "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts to honor Eric Garner and his family, and to give a wake-up call to society. Garner died on July 17 after a police officer placed him in a chokehold when he was being arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes.

"Like I said before, violence isn't the answer and retaliation isn't the solution," James said. "As a society, we know we have to get better. It's not going to be done in one day. ... We all have to do better."

James is increasingly becoming known for his social consciousness. This development is somewhat surprising given James' long refusal to comment -- or take action of any kind -- on his long-time sponsor Nike's use of sweatshop factories in third-world countries. These factories have become symbols of labor rights violations, paltry wages, terrible working conditions, forced overtime and abusive treatment of hundreds of thousands of workers. The factories make a mockery of human rights standards.

For years, James appeared to be following the example of one of his idols, Michael Jordan. Jordan was infamous for once saying, "Republicans buy sneakers too" when asked why he wasn't going to endorse a Democratic candidate for Senate in a race against Republican Jesse Helms.

Jordan has long been known to be more interested in protecting his "brand" than taking a stand on social issues.

New York Times columnist Harvey Araton once had this to say about Jordan, the world's most successful salesman of sweatshop-made shoes:

"No one has ever confused you, Michael, with Muhammed Ali or Martina Navratilova or Arthur Ashe. With your icon leverage you might have helped convert Nike, the notorious third-world workplace abuser, but you didn't do causes that were not commercials."

In recent years, James has become more willing to speak his mind on socio-cultural issues, some sports-related, some not. For example, he is believed to be the first NBA star to call for Donald Sterling's ouster as owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.

"There is no room for Donald Sterling in our league," James said.

James also is well-known for tweeting a photo of him and teammates with heads bowed and wearing hooded sweatshirts in support of Trayvon Martin, the black teen killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch patroller. They were the first pro athletes to make a strong statement on the Martin killing.

The "I Can't Breathe" statements by Rose, James and others follow the "Hands Up, Don't Shoot!" statements a weak earlier by several St. Louis Rams football players following the upheaval in Ferguson, Missouri.

The bigger point here isn't the particular statements made by James and these other professional athletes. It's the increasing number of pro athletes willing to risk their "brand" by taking a stand on causes they believe in. It's a welcome "other-oriented" vs. "me-oriented" development in the world of pro sports.

Even though these types of actions may seem minor to some, they do require courage because they come in a conservative sports industry in which the norm is to simply ignore social issues and keep one's mouth shut. The vast majority of pro athletes do just that.

A clergyman named Ralph Sockman once nailed both tolerance and courage in one sentence when he said, "The test of tolerance comes when we are in a majority; the test of courage comes when we are in a minority." How true.

Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell supports players making political statements and appreciates the courage involved.

"I grew up in the '60s, where everybody was socially conscious," Caldwell said. "I believe in it. I'd be a hypocrite if I stood up here and told you any differently, because more than likely, some of those protests that Dr. (Martin Luther) King and some of the others that took a part in non-violent protests, is the reason why I'm standing here in front of you today."

Caldwell, James, Rose, and the St. Louis Rams players that have recently taken stands on social issues should be commended, not necessarily for their stances but for the willingness to be seen and heard in a sports culture that encourages just the opposite.