It was June 4, 1967. Perhaps the greatest collection of black athletes ever had assembled in Cleveland. But they were not there to compete. They were there to show solidarity and make a political statement. The Who’s Who included Muhammad Ali.
His heavyweight boxing title had been stripped five weeks earlier for his refusal to fight in Vietnam. While some quotations remain disputed—one in particular—Ali’s message was clear. He was flanked by recently retired running back Jim Brown, arguably still the greatest player to wear an NFL uniform. And Bill Russell, the center extraordinaire who was in the midst of leading his Celtics to the most dominant run of championships in NBA history. Other luminaries included: future football Hall of Famer Willie Davis and host Carl Stokes, who soon become the first black mayor of a major city.
What later became known as the “Ali Summit” was organized by Brown and held at the offices of the Negro Industrial Economic Union. Its purpose was not only to back Ali and his stance against a war that was was growing increasingly unpopular, but also to discuss black entrepreneurship. Many in the media lambasted the athletes for a perception that they were sticking their noses where they didn’t belong. The argument was that they boasted no level of expertise in political matters and should simply stick to sports.
Fast forward to the 1968 Summer Olympics. One who lived through the era can still picture the image of gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos on the victory stand. Heads lowered, black-gloved fists raised in the air while the National Anthem blared. They were protesting racism and discrimination that remained in America despite recent strides. Ones such as the signing of the Voting and Civil Rights Acts by President Lyndon Johnson. Smith and Carlos were chastised as well, and soon banished from the Olympic village in Mexico City.
Until recently, one could have hardly imagined such powerful and organized messages being sent by athletes today about any controversial topic.
Michael Jordan was criticized a generation ago for his refusal to take a stand on such issues as apartheid in South Africa. His reasoning was that Republicans bought his sneakers as well and he preferred not to ruffle any feathers. But recent tragedies such as the shootings of unarmed blacks by police in various cities began raising the consciousness of athletes throughout the sports landscape. They are speaking out again through words and deeds, such as wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts to call out the choking to death of Eric Garner in New York City. The U.S. Women’s soccer team protested unequal pay by filing a lawsuit against U.S. Soccer. To borrow the lyrics of a song popularized in the era of Ali, Brown and Russell, the times they are a changin’.
But the times they aren’t a changin’ all that much in regard to reaction. Millions of Americans and many media outlets have railed against the new politicization of athletes who choose to speak out. They offer that those who play games for a living have no business using their fame to state their views. What’s more, they claim that the opinions of athletes are no more valid than those of the plumber living down the street.
And, to some degree, they’re right. Their roles as athletes do not make them experts on politics or social causes. Yet it’s those same people who complain when athletes do not embrace their undeniable status as role models. It is indeed true that athletes should probably not be role models. Parents should target themselves and real heroes such as Martin Luther King as role models. But, to use an unfortunate expression of the modern era: it is what it is. Athletes can no more shed their obligations as they can deny they have arms and legs. It also cannot be argued, however, that if athletes are indeed role models, they have more of a responsibility to express themselves about issues that affect millions than fellow citizens whose words bear little influence.
This is the United States of America, where we all have the right to express our views. But one must judge athletes in regard to whether they are all talk and no action. Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer recently decried protests on college campuses and tweeted about his backing of President Trump. That’s fine. But then he threw his teammates under the bus by claiming most of them voted for Trump. Subsequently, he was called out by the Tiffany Otero, wife of Indians’ reliever Dan Otero.
Bauer, meanwhile, has done nothing to put his money where his mouth is and make the world a better place.
Then there’s free agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who caused a furor by refusing to stand for the national anthem. Other NFL players followed suit. One can debate the merits of his actions, but not his rights as an American. And, more importantly, he has made good on his promise to donate one million dollars to organizations that serve to fight social injustice.
Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James has gone beyond verbal and silent protests as well. He campaigned for Hillary Clinton and heads a foundation that has raised money to send underprivileged kids to college. Best buddy and New York Knicks standout Carmelo Anthony posted on Instagram a photo of the iconic 1967 summit in Cleveland and urged athletes to go beyond social media and demand change through active political means—concern for endorsement deals be damned.
Such a view should be admired. For it is not enough for athletes to simply state their opinions on the vexing issues of the day. After all, a staggering number of people in Chicago were murdered last year. It was largely due to increasing gang violence, and something must be done.
The following question must then be asked of athletes: What are you doing about it?