‘I Am Not a Role Model’ and the Resurgence of Athlete Activism

Extending gloved hands skyward in racial protest, U.S. athletes Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos stare downward during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner after Smith received the gold and Carlos the bronze for the 200 meter run at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City on Oct. 16, 1968. (AP Photo)

“Republicans buy sneakers too.”

That’s what Michael Jordan reportedly said when, in 1990, he was asked to endorse Harvey Gantt, a black politician who was running against Jesse Helms, a racist and divisive senator, in Jordan’s home state of North Carolina. Arthur Ashe was one of those who had reached out to Jordan, hoping to convince the then-ascendant GOAT to take a political stand, to use his position for something that mattered off the court. Jordan’s reputed answer wasn’t unusual—it was just three years later that Charles Barkley, a future NBA Hall of Famer, infamously proclaimed that he was “not a role model.”

“I am not paid to be a role model,” he added, snagging a rebound amidst a black-and-white background. We have come a long way from the days of John Carlos and Tommie Smith, of Muhammad Ali’s “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong,” of UCLA’s All-American Bill Walton being arrested at an anti-Vietnam rally, of Mississippi State’s basketball team playing Loyola Chicago and defying governor Ross Barnett’s mandate prohibiting games with integrated teams.

If the 1960s and ’70s were all about athletes taking a stand against societal norms and protesting for change, few dared to question abuses in the 1980s and ’90s. There aren’t many tales of high-profile athletes joining ACT UP marches or reacting to South Africa’s apartheid regime.

But this nonchalant stance has changed in recent years. We are in a renewed era of athlete activism, one that has been jumpstarted amidst the Black Lives Matter movement. Carmelo Anthony has emerged as the most vocal superstar athlete of the modern era (which is incredibly ironic considering he plays for a team with an owner more infatuated with owning a team than success), and Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem, a simple statement, interjected the modern state of race relations into our every day conversations. Reeves Wiedeman of New York Magazine recently wrote about the new age of athlete activism, focusing on Kaepernick’s actions:

No one had noticed when Kaepernick spent much of the previous year posting Malcolm X quotes and social-justice memes on Instagram, or when he sat for the anthem during the 49ers’ first two preseason games. But after a reporter got a tip from a team official and asked Kaepernick about it — “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color” — the quarterback found himself at the center of a firestorm…Michael Skolnik, an activist in Brooklyn who often helps celebrities figure out how to become effective activists, talked to Kaepernick two days after his protest. “The first thing I saw was that he knew his shit,” Skolnik said. “What he didn’t know was that the movement has multiple layers of work, so the question is, where do you want to be involved?” Kaepernick told Skolnik that, for starters, he wanted to donate a million dollars. “I said, ‘Okay, that’s nice,’ ” Skolnik said. “ ‘But don’t think your million dollars is gonna stop cops from killing black people.’”

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) and San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold (58) kneel during the playing of the National anthem before the first half of an NFL football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

What is most interesting about athlete activism circa 2017 is how doing something such as kneeling, or refusing to meet President Trump, as several New England Patriots have promised to do, bucking the tradition post-Super Bowl of visiting the White House. And those Pats likely won’t be the last to turn down a trip to Washington D.C.: The NBA is arguably the most woke league, and two of its top teams—the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs—are among the league’s most outspoken. As Gregg Popovich, the Spurs’ coach, said in mid-January:

It’s hard to be respectful of someone when we all have kids and we’re watching him be misogynistic and xenophobic and racist and make fun of handicapped people. And what really bothers me are the people around him: The Sean Spicers, the Kellyanne Conways, the Reince Priebuses that know who he is and actually have the cynical approach and disingenuous attitude to really defend him and try to make it look like he didn’t say what he said.

Either of those teams are in a good position to win the NBA title this summer, and based on comments from both players and coaches, it’ll be a wonder if the NBA champion is even invited to the White House.

Last year, Stephen Tignor—in a piece we co-published with Racquet magazine—wrote about the differing protest methodologies of Ashe and Ali, and how both were effective in their own way:

Ashe and Ali often expressed a desire to meet each other, but it happened just once during their athletic careers. After his trip to South Africa in 1973, the tennis player made a pilgrimage to the boxer’s training camp in rural Pennsylvania. Here was the man who had helped Ashe gain the courage to be more than an athlete, to live for more than himself.

“Ali spoke in his usual folksy way, with the bad grammar and the colorful idioms,” Ashe said—he had his standards, even with the immortals. “But there certainly is no doubt in my mind that a very natively clever man lurks behind this façade. We had a most forthright and intelligent conversation.”

Their long-distance dialogue—about what athletes owe to the world, and what Americans owe to their country—is over now. But Ali’s passion and fearlessness have been inherited by a new generation of African-American activists and athletes, while Ashe’s cerebral moderation can be seen in the governing style of Barack Obama.

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