CNN-Chicago Bulls Guard Derrick Rose broke down in tears at a press conference when asked what a new shoe contract worth $250 million meant to him. His responses on camera and on Twitter were about his feelings on the teachers strike in Chicago.
He had a $250 million shoe contract, but the youth of his hometown of Chicago were on the mind of this young man. It was obvious that Rose understood the political aspect, but he focused on the human aspect -- he realizes that he could have easily been one of the kids killed in the senseless violence that has ravaged his native city, he realizes he is fortunate -- and if you were a witness to the interview, you would agree that the last thing on his mind was a tax break.
Also recently, Baltimore Ravens player Brendon Ayanbadejo's took a public stand on LBGT rights. It prompted Emmett Burns, a state delegate from Baltimore County, to ask that Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, "take the necessary action, as a National Football League owner, to inhibit such expressions from your employees and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions. I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayanbadejo is doing." It was a perfect example of a critic using the "shut up and play" motto.
Ayenbendajo's stance is one that has been taken up by other NFL players, such as Michael Irvin, but maybe the best response came from fellow LBGT supporter Minnesota punter Chris Kluwe, who wrote possibly one of the best political statements ever made by an athlete to Burns. Kluwe's second point in the letter reads:
"You wrote, 'Many of your fans are opposed to such a view and feel it has no place in a sport that is strictly for pride, entertainment and excitement.' Holy --ing --balls. Did you seriously just say that, as someone who is, according to your Wikipedia page, 'deeply involved in government task forces on the legacy of slavery in Maryland?' Have you not heard of Kenny Washington? Jackie Robinson? As recently as 1962 the NFL still had segregation, which was only done away with by brave athletes and coaches daring to speak their mind and do the right thing, and you're going to say that political views have 'no place in a sport'? I can't even begin to fathom the cognitive dissonance that must be coursing through your rapidly addled mind right now; the mental gymnastics your brain has to tortuously contort itself through to make such a preposterous statement are surely worthy of an Olympic gold medal (the Russian judge gives you a 10 for 'beautiful oppressionism')."
Social media allows for a constant, entertaining and unfiltered window into users' thoughts. It has become an arena where the convictions, thoughts, feelings and politics of some of our favorite athletes take the forefront.
Facebook and Twitter have revolutionized how we communicate with sports icons, because anyone with an IP address can express themselves any way they choose from anywhere in the world. Social media helped bring fans closer to athletes and to feel a part of the game, with real-time responses in some instances. Yet something unexpected has happened. Fans are getting a direct line into some of the personal issues and opinions that historically were heavily guarded. In the past, agents and marketing personnel felt if athletes gave their opinions on hot topics, it could destroy huge endorsement contracts.
This complicated view of sports and politics has historically led to a series of great moments, as well as missed opportunities, depending on your political point of view. It was the tempestuous climate of the 1960s that displayed the most famous political stances from athletes.
Moments of protest were thrust into the living rooms of a worldwide audience: First was Muhammad Ali's historic stand against the draft process and the Vietnam War. Then came the 1968 Olympic Summer Games in which John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists to the sky in protest, with Peter Norman wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge to support them. The media attention helped propel what can be considered one of the most iconic images and moments in sports into a historic notion of free speech.
While those athletes' political stances are admired and even idolized today, they faced major repercussions back then. Ali was stripped of his title and boxing license, while Smith and Carlos were forced to relinquish their medals. Atlanta native Mel Pender, who won a gold medal in those Olympics as a member of the 4x100 relay, witnessed that moment firsthand.
"Athletes don't do enough when it comes to politics," Pender said.
The statement that was made that day in Mexico City was not intended to bring attention to the fight for freedom and equality for black people, but for all people.
There will always be someone on the other side of the issue. For our athletes, the backlash can be debilitating to their career, finances or fan base. Social media and its unfiltered commentary has in some ways become a PR agent's worst nightmare. That intimate window into athletes' thoughts has no buffer and is putting the power into their hands.
Jim Brown has urged some of the world's most notable athletes, like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, to take a stand on social and political issues for years. Brown questioned their need to protect their image over standing up for what was right.
LZ Granderson, in an August commentary for ESPN, discussed the evolution of sports and politics as it relates to Michael Jordan. During Jordan's early playing days he refused to support Democratic candidate Harvey Gantt, who was running for a Senate seat. Jordan famously declared, "Republicans buy sneakers, too." At that time there would likely have been backlash against Jordan, who as a retiree recently hosted a private fundraising dinner for President Obama.
These days, famous athletes are open with their views without any fear of backlash. Tim Tebow appeared in an anti-abortion commercial with his mother and is very active on Twitter discussing his faith. In the spring, the Miami Heat players, in a show of solidarity during the Trayvon Martin shooting investigation, united for a hooded photo honoring Martin's memory.
The sports world is evolving much the way the world is adjusting to social media and new ideas. This new age of athletes are willing to use their social status to influence the political and cultural landscape. Change is constant, but growth is optional. Social media has united athletes and fans in a way that not many other avenues can. You may not always agree with the stance of your favorite athlete, but at least these days they have an opinion, and it seems they are willing to let the world know.
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