Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Athletes don't need to be vocal activists

Nation sports editor Dave Zirin does a fantastic job of chronicling the nexus of sport and politics in his documentary “Not Just a Game”.

The movie adroitly highlights the manifestation of dominant ideologies in American society and how they are reflected in sport. However, I must take issue with Zirin’s implied assertion that prominent athletes should be activists for change. More specifically, my criticism is with the way Michael Jordan is portrayed.

Zirin bashes Jordan for not loudly agitating for social progress; Jordan instead chooses to maintain a financially vibrant corporate image. One of the documentary’s main examples for Jordan’s perceived indifference is his refusal to endorse “African-American” Harvey Gantt, a Democratic Senate candidate, who ran against Republican incumbent and “opponent of civil rights” Jesse Helms.

The answer Jordan gave was “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” As cynical as that answer sounds, it cannot mask the bigger question that needs to be posed to Zirin: Why should Jordan endorse Gantt or anybody else? It is implied since Gantt is black and Helms is an “opponent of civil rights” that Jordan naturally should back Gantt.

This sort of commentary is highly problematic. Why do commentators assume that certain (read: black) issues should automatically determine how blacks should vote? For all women, should issues on reproductive rights automatically dictate how they should vote?

As for Jordan’s nonendorsal of Jesse Helms, what would Zirin say about James Meredith? Meredith, whom The Clarion Ledger says is the "first known black" to attend the University of Mississippi, worked for Helms in 1989. Is he less of an icon because his politics do not comport to Zirin’s views of what activists should be?

It is also not fair to compare Jordan to that of Muhammad Ali, John Carlos or Tommie Smith. The world they lived in during their athletic primes and the world Jordan lived in during his are radically different. Ali, Carlos and Smith were competing in the throes of both the civil rights and anti-war movements. Lots of blood was shed and many lives were lost in the battle to transform U.S. society.

This is not to say the 1980s and 1990s were a halcyon for civil rights, but societal attitudes were certainly different. The fervor from the previous generation had calmed considerably. There is no doubt the courage displayed by Ali, Carlos and Smith is legendary and paved the way for Jordan and others today, but why should Jordan, LeBron James or Tiger Woods be compared to them?

Athletes are placed in prominent positions in American society, right or wrong. Wanting them to effect positive change is a noble effort, but who gets to define what is “positive?” Issues are contentious because passions run strong along all (not just both) sides.

Maybe some notable individuals would rather work through charities or some other means to improve society. One need not have the podium or the loudest voice to help people.
-- Steve Bien-Aime

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