Are Sports Champions Obligated to Score Political Points, Too?

As professional athletes have risen in media exposure and income over at least the past four decades, so too has the call for them to take center stage in some of the country's fiercest political battles.

By Jamilah King Jun 06, 2011

There’s a ghost following LeBron James in his quest to lead the Miami Heat toward another NBA championship. And no, the ghost doesn’t hail from Cleveland or wear the mask of Dan Gilbert, the Cavaliers’ owner whose criticism of James’ choice to leave the team got Jesse Jackson talking about slavery. Instead, the superstar is haunted by a shadow that accompanies him whenever he takes center stage: What, if any good will he do with his fame and fortune?

Back in 2007 during the NBA playoffs, James became the subject of heated criticism after refusing to sign a petition started by a teammate to protest China’s alleged involvement in the conflict in Darfur. At the time, James said he simply didn’t know enough about the conflict to make an informed statement. Yet critics blasted the NBA’s brightest superstar, calling him a coward. Jonathan Zimmerman at the Christian Science Monitor wrote that the origins of James’ refusal could be traced back to his $90 million endorsement deal with Nike, which has "huge business interests in China."

A year later, shortly before the U.S. Olympic team competed for and won a gold medal in Beijing, James changed his tune: "At the end of the day we’re talking about human rights," he said publicly. "And people should understand that human rights and people’s lives are in jeopardy. We’re not talking about contracts here. We’re talking about money. We’re talking about people’s lives being lost and that means a lot more to me than some money or a contract."

Many people were happy to hear James talking, period. The fact that the NBA’s most marketable player had finally come out strongly on a political issue did mean something. But the controversy leading up to the statement shined a bright light on the decades-old conversation about the potential role professional athletes can and should have in political movements.

That conversation didn’t start and certainly won’t end with James. As professional athletes have risen in media exposure and income over at least the past four decades, so too has the call for them to take center stage in some of the country’s fiercest political battles. It’s a call that’s colored largely by the fact that many of America’s best and brightest professional athletes are young black men, many of whom have seemingly beaten the odds and risen from poverty to stardom.

"The era when we think about athletes speaking out was the 1960’s and 1970’s, when you had mass social movements in the streets," said Dave Zirin, a sports columnist for The Nation and author of Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love. "It’s wrong to expect athletes to speak out in greater numbers without movements that exist in greater numbers."

The premise for this call, of course, is that pro athletes have a tremendous amount of money and cultural cache, and that their influence is even bigger than that of politicians or movement icons. A 2008 Forbes list of the Most Influential Athletes summed it up this way: "When Shaquille O’Neal talks, people listen."

"Professional athletes, and certainly at least smart athletes, really understand that all athletes are brand images," said Daniel Durbin, the director of the Institute of Sports, Media and Society at the University of Southern California. "The most dangerous thing you can do for a brand is politicize it."

Durbin continued by pointing out that many pro athletes make more in endorsement deals than with their sports contracts. To see just how much of an impact this can have, look no further than Tiger Woods. For over a dozen years, Woods made history as the world’s first and most dominant African-American championship golfer. He racked up 14 professional major golf championships while refusing to comment on the fact that many of the clubs that played host to his victories had contentious histories with discriminatory membership policies. Some, like the storied Augusta National Golf Club, were still without a single woman member.

But Woods made a fortune. According to Golf Digest, he racked up $769,440,709 from 1996 to 2007. In 2009, Forbes confirmed that Woods had become the world’s first athlete to earn over a billion dollars in his career, and gathered that with a net worth of over $600 million, he was second only to Oprah on the list of the world’s richest African Americans. The vast majority of that wealth came from multimillion dollar endorsement deals with companies like Nike, American Express, Gatorade, Accenture and General Motors.

When the sordid details of his sex life went public on Thanksgiving weekend in 2009, Woods’s cash flow suffered severely. Negative views of the golfer jumped 160 percent, as measured by what’s known as a Q score, which rates the marketability of celebrities. One by one, he was suspended or completely cut from sponsorship deals with Gillette, Neilson, and TAG Heuer. Less than a month after the scandal broke, researchers at the University of California at Riverside released a report estimating that the shareholder loss caused by the scandal would be between $5 billion and $12 billion. Business Insider reported that Woods lost $20 million in endorsement deals alone in 2010.

While most players don’t have to worry about their dirty laundry being flaunted around on gossip blogs, for the select few who do attract massive endorsement deals, image is everything. Particularly in an industry where careers are short and injuries could could call for abrupt retirements. Durbin also points out that athletes are professionals like in any other industry, and that they shouldn’t be saddled with the responsibility of making statements — political or otherwise.

"Many athletes don’t see themselves as social leaders," Durbin says. "Athletes carry the position of being the most visible people in their community, so it’s almost impossible for them to get out of it."

Durbin added that history has taught many players that talking politics could cost them their careers. "In the long past, certainly baseball was probably the greatest negative illustration in which it was accepted in clubhouses that you do not comment on the political situation no matter what because baseball was the national past time and players were not politicians." During UCLA basketball’s championship run in the 1970’s, Bill Walden was scolded by legendary coach John Wooden for speaking out agains the Vietnam War, wearing his hair long and, generally, looking like a hippie. Muhammed Ali went to jail at the peak of his career for his refusal to fight in the war.

Still, some today have eagerly joined the political fray. After Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed the state’s controversial immigration bill HR 87 this year, Atlanta Hawks basketball player Etan Thomas spoke out. "I can’t believe that anyone would be in favor of racial profiling," Thomas told The Nation, before applauding the thousands of protestors who showed up outside of the state capitol building. "The bill is very similar to the Arizona bill [SB 1070] and authorizes law enforcement officers to verify the immigration status of ‘certain criminal suspects.’ So this means they can pull anyone over at anytime and their only crime could be minding their own business. That goes against everything this country should stand for."

Thomas, an 11-year veteran, is known for being outspoken. He’s also a spoken word artist who released a book of poetry titled "More Than an Athlete: Poems by Etan Thomas," on top of donating to Haitian earthquake relief efforts and campaigning for President Obama in 2008 while a member of the Washington Wizards.

Other athletes have made recent headlines for their political views. The World Champion San Francisco Giants released major league sports’ first video for the "It Gets Better" campaign earlier this month, after lots of campaigning from local gay rights activists. Journeyman basketball player and Phoenix Suns guard Grant Hill made a public service announcement where he spoke out against anti-gay attitudes in men’s sports, shortly before news hit that the team’s owner, Rick Weltz, became one of the first high-ranking members of professional sports to publicly come out of the closet. Filipino boxing champ Manny Paquiao recently won one of his country’s congressional seats.

And last year when Arizona passed its deeply anti-immigrant law SB 1070, the Phoenix Suns basketball team made a collective decision to sport jerseys that read "Los Suns" in defiance of the state’s covertly racist legislation.

The fight over SB 1070 has already proved to be a defining moment for many pro athletes. Last year, a long list of Latino Major League Baseball players sent a letter to commissioner Bud Selig saying that would refuse to play in the 2011 All Star game if it was played in Arizona, as scheduled. Selig arrogantly refused, and the game is scheduled to take place in a few weeks on July 12 at Chase Field in Phoenix. "I’m opposed to it," said St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, a three-time National League MVP. "How are you going to tell me that, me, being Hispanic, if you stop me and I don’t have my ID, you’re going to arrest me? That can’t be." Pujols was born in the Dominican Republic and became an American citizen in 2007. Only time will tell where — and with whom — he’ll play his political cards.