On April 28, 1967, history was made thanks to Muhammad Ali. He didn’t win a boxing match and he didn’t insert another clever phrase in the world’s lexicon, he refused entry into the United States Army to fight in the Vietnam War. Many find this day and the days that followed to be very important in, not only sports history, but our country’s history. I do too but I find the whole saga important for a completely different reason.
From 1940-1973, the military draft was in effect. Started by President Franklin Roosevelt, the draft was exactly as it sounds, drafting young men regardless of their ethnicity or career choice into the military to serve their country. No one seriously challenged this way of life until 1966 when Ali was drafted into the Army but refused to fight in the war due to his strong Islam beliefs. On April 28, 1967, after three appeals to fight his drafting were denied, he refused step forward at the induction ceremony in Houston, TX.
On June 4th, 1967, a group of African-American athletes gathered at the offices of the Black Economic Union in Cleveland, Ohio in support of Ali. These weren’t any Black athletes, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar among others showed their support for the country’s, at the moment, villain. The top & most recognizable athletes in their sports, at the time came out and showed their support for a fellow brother in trouble. That was one of the most beautiful moments in sports history and history, in general. All three athletes were advocates for equality among African-American athletes and people. Imagine something like that happening today in the world of sports. Top athletes from different sports worlds uniting to take a stand against an issue like unequal pay towards women and men, police brutality, our country’s horrible education or even good ‘ole racism. Athletes like Kobe Bryant, Adrian Peterson, Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and LeBron James coming together for a great cause. Who wouldn’t listen to them and take their words seriously? Kids certainly would. If they can change kids’ vernacular, dress and career paths, I’m sure these athletes could inspire and spark social and economical change within our youth. However, we’ll never see anything close to that. We won’t even see an athlete speak out on anything serious going on in the world. Not because they don’t have an opinion or because they don’t care but because today’s athlete is a brand.
When Nike and Gatorade tapped Michael Jordan to market and promote their product for them, the game had officially changed. Not just because this method of marketing helped launch Michael Jordan from a great basketball player to a global icon but because now dollars were worth more than sense. Now, as an athlete with a huge corporation backing them, speaking out against something such FEMA’s late arrival during the Hurricane Katrina aftermath could mean them losing their deal with a Nike, Subway, Target or whomever which leads to a loss of millions of dollars and who wants to lose all that money? I sure wouldn’t and neither would they. But is the potential loss of money and a controversial firestorm worth not using your platform in a positive manner? Wait, I forgot who I’m talking to. Americans. Of course all that’s not worth it. Character & morals over money? Never in America.
I can’t blame the athlete for wanting to keep their mouth shut to keep money in their pocket so they can….feed their family, I see you Latrell, but I blame the high powered companies who make it very difficult for an athlete to speak out on a serious, controversial issue should they choose to. Companies that tap an athlete to be their spokesperson aren’t too fond of them speaking out on something like the George Zimmerman trial or the senseless killings in Chicago. If a Kevin Durant says something about those issues then a company like T-Mobile has to release a press statement saying how Durant’s views are his own and his alone, it could possibly bring bad press to their company and depending on what he said and how he said it, he may get a slap on the wrist or he may be dropped from his contract. In a nice way, of course; or you could do like Nike did in 1993 with Charles Barkley and aid the athlete in their controversial feelings.
For those not in the know, Nike ran a commercial in 1993 with Charles Barkley proclaiming that he “was not a role model” and “just because he dribbled a basketball doesn’t mean he should raise your kids”. That commercial, which I personally think is one of the best commercials of all time, sparked a huge debate about whether athletes should be seen as role models or not. I thought it was a conversation that needed to be had amongst the public and Nike did really well in supporting Barkley and serving as a platform for him to speak his mind, of which he did anyway and still does.
It’s a shame that we’re in an era where money talks louder than a voice that could be used for good but that’s the world we live in. Fortunately, life is cyclical so maybe we can hold on to the fact and hope that an athlete will come along and use their platform for good and speak out on an issue that deserves more spotlight than the news gives it. Or is this just a sign of the times and unless the topic is mo’ money, mo’ money, mo’ money, the athletes turn a deaf ear to it?
We, as sports fans, are always looking for the next transcendent athlete. The one that will change how the sport is played, how their position will be valued in terms of size, speed & athleticism and what the “new norm” is. That can be fun. Looking for the “next Jordan, Kobe or LeBron” or finding the next great freak-of-a-nature NFL athlete or even the “next Tiger” on the greens. I’m looking for the next athlete that will use his platform to speak out against social issues without fear of losing a deal with Powerade and have it be a snowball effect to where another athlete will have their back and so on and so forth. I’m looking for the next Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Muhammad Ali. It wouldn’t be bad if that athlete played like them either.