April 25, 2012 § 3 Comments
Through most of March, I spent my days waiting for the latest developments in Trayvon Martin’s death. While many Americans showed solidarity by donning hoodies, marching, and forcing the story into the mainstream media via social networking, I wondered why some well-known and influential African Americans appeared reluctant to comment on the case. In time, President Barack Obama drew his line in the sand, stating, “if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” Nonetheless, outside of a few prominent Black protestors/organizers, many with the power of celebrity remained relatively quiet for much of the controversial ordeal.
Throughout the 20th Century, many of the most well-known and admired Black figures have been entertainers. In particular, Black athletes have been placed at the center of social change as many sports struggled to integrate. And whether speaking about the Harlem Rens in the 1920s, and Indianapolis’ Crispus Attucks Tigers in the 1950s, basketball has repeatedly permitted, not only individuals, but teams of Black men to enter the public eye while contesting the status quo.
Today, the presence of Black athletes in the competitive arena is common. The fortunate few competing at the highest levels may even earn fortunes. Nonetheless, the voice and presence of the Black athlete in struggles for racial justice have waned in recent years. It’s as though John Carolos and Muhammed Ali made enough noise in the late 1960s to last Black Americans over 40 years.
For some Black stars, the athlete’s responsibilities did not appear to extend beyond a contractual agreement between the player and the team. Charles Barkley’s famous quote, “I am not a role model,” concisely represents the stance many athletes have taken with regard to social responsibility. Barkley even went on to explain that he is paid to play basketball. Role modeling is, as Sir Charles stated, for parents.
Although Barkley was painfully blunt, Michael Jordan’s statement involving political endorsements is, in my opinion, more alarming. MJ decided not to endorse a Black democratic candidate in North Carolina in 1990 for fear of losing sales. Jordan’s business savvy was made apparent when he said, ”hey, republicans buy shoes too.” Of course, he was correct about republicans and shoes. By 2011, Jordan had amassed a net worth of $500 million. Without a doubt, he managed to achieve this due to hard work, exceptional talent, and playing great basketball in the last decades of the 20th Century (the NBA didn’t pay that much in the 1960s). However, his silence regarding political and social contention was a significant element in building his brand.
In March 2012, we were reminded that newer generations of athletes have begun to show defiance–defiance that is often associated with images of Black youth.While David Stern, the NBA’s commissioner, illustrated this very association when imposing a dress code in 2005, the Miami Heat’s decision to show solidarity with their hoodies is a remarkable statement. Perhaps the team’s involvement shouldn’t be so impressive, but it is.
Throughout his career, Lebron James has received criticism for his comments in the media. In fact, individuals such as ESPN’s Skip Bayless have repeatedly discussed James’ supposedly inappropriate public voice. Bayless and many others have attempted to measure the vocal, tweeting young player against Michael Jordan (the model business man/athlete), but why? Even though all dominant basketball players will have to endure comparisons to MJ for quite some time, should we ask them to be Jordan-esque? Is that what we want from Black athletes today?
It appears that social responsibility may be a greater possibility now that the Jordan era has passed. Players may not become MJ rich, but stars in the NBA, NFL, and other major sports organizations are making more money than most of their predecessors. Today basketball players such as Lebron James and Carmello Anthony are endorsed by Nike, but they also represent the Jordan brand. In other words, this generation’s stars may never have to shoulder the weight that MJ did. Those individuals who choose to express their views may not experience the bindings that restricted Jordan’s life off-court.
Whatever the case, James and the Heat reminded us of the Black athlete’s story in America.