The 1968 Olympics were a watershed moment for the black protest movement United States.

The image of the black glove-adorned fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos thrust skyward on the medal stand in Mexico City has been seared into my mind’s eye since I was in the 4th grade. That is when Mr. DeBrady, a primary school teacher of mine, first brought it to my attention in the form of a comic book from the Golden Legacy Series. By that time I had heard of Olympic greats such as Edwin Moses, Jesse Owens and Wilma Rudolph, but I had yet to put those figures into perspective as far as my personal worldview was concerned. That’s mostly because I didn’t have a worldview. I was 9 years old. It was all just random bits of information that meant very little to me. That is until I learned the story of Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

These young men had dedicated their lives to track & field and Olympic gold. They then knowingly sacrificed everything they worked for to make a political statement. It’s as mind-boggling to me today as it was nearly 30 years ago as I read their story in comic book form during recess. In fact, it is even more amazing to me today than it was then.

From the time I read that comic book I looked at sports figures in a different way. I went on to learn about Paul Robeson, an All American football player, singer and actor turned civil rights activist, and the great Muhammad Ali who gave up his freedom, his belt and millions of dollars for refusing to enlist in the United States Armed Forces during the Vietnam War. I knew him only as a boxer up until that point.  He was far more.  NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown has also been at the forefront of civil rights politics for over 40 years. These were my sports heroes as a child. I didn’t believe that all black athletes should speak on or act on matters of social importance to African Americans, but I did think that there would be other Muhammads, other Jim Browns and other Robesons. I am aware of the fact that 1968 was a year filled with activism the likes of which this country may likely never see again, and I’m also aware that the new millineum has shaped up to be activism-less as far as many African Americans are concerned. Lots of complaints but very little activism. But activism from sports figures of color is non-existent.

There are some who would point to a black man being president of the United States as one reason why we don’t need black sports activism, but that is a moot argument. We cannot truly claim the president because he is not our champion, he is the POTUS. But an athletic activist can be our champion and be a champion as well.

“Republicans buy shoes, too,” Jordan reportedly quipped to a friend on why he wouldn’t endorse a black Democratic candidate, Harvey Gantt, in a 1990 North Carolina Senate race against Republican Jesse Helms.  I was a teenager, but not clueless. It was clear that Jordan was a money-making machine, and any political leanings in either direction could throw a cog in the gears of that all important mechanism. Be that as it may, I still had some hope that the best basketball player ever would use his clout to speak on issues other than those that affected him directly. i suppose those were just the whimsical musings of a child.

Muhammad Ali in 1965

Very few of the best players from our favorite sports are involved in any kind of activism other than charitable organizations that only become important twice a year; during the off season for fundraising purposes and during tax season for financial purposes. The modern rendition of giving back is to throw crumbs at a particular group of downtrodden souls and snap a few photos with those precious little scamps affected by (insert issue here). They’ll be sure to remember all the catch phrases for those “NBA Cares” commericals and have that be that. To be certain, there is no way that anyone could throw shade at the altruistic accomplishments of Alonzo Mourning, David Robinson and many others. There are many that dedicate the remainder of their lives to being champions to their chosen cause after their playing days. But these causes are rarely soci0-economic and the times they are political are rarer still.

Craig Hodges during his playing days.

The last professional athlete to speak out on social issues partaining to black people was former Chicago Bulls guard Craig Hodges. After winning a ring in 1992, Hodges showed up at the traditional players visit to the White House for photo opportunities. He showed up wearing a dashiki and presented then president George H.W. Bush with a letter expressing his discontent with the way the administration treated minorities. He also criticized Michael Jordan for his apparent apathy towards social issues as well.

Hodges was waived by the Bulls after that season and never played in the NBA again. He filed suit against the league in 1996 claiming he was blackballed. Phil Jackson, his coach while he was in Chicago, was once quoted as saying he thought it was odd that Hodges didn’t get any offers after the White House incident.

“I also found it strange that not a single team called to inquire about him,” said Jackson during a 1996 interview with the New York Times. “…and, yes, he couldn’t play defense, but a lot of guys in the league can’t, but not many can shoot from his range, either.”
Hodges and Larry Bird are the only two players to win three consecutive 3 point Shootout Contests at the annual all star festivities. So, magically, he was suddenly over the hill at 32? The last thing a basketball player loses with age is his jumpshot.

An outspoken politically active athlete in the modern era? He or she would certainly be a polarizing figure. But the problem with being polarizing is, while 40 to 60 percent of those that have an opinion of you like you, the opposite is also true. My imaginary politically active player would have to at least be an all star in his or her respective sport, but the more dominant the better. We wouldn’t want this person’s skills on the playing field to ever be in question. That, of course, was a great deal of the mystique surrounding Muhammad Ali. The fact that he was at his peak when he when he lost it all for standing up for what he believed in provides a life lesson to all who wish to learn it.

Are there any athletes that stand for something socio-political? Are there any that would be willing to risk fame and fortune in the modern era? Well, many risk fame and fortune over dumb stuff; sexual assault, spousal abuse, disorderly conduct, and DUI are but a few of the charges that have been filed against high profile athletes in the last 10 years. During Kobe Bryant’s trial for sexual assault and rape Nike and McDonalds dropped him within days of the allegations surfacing. So athletes are willing to act a fool on their own accord and risk endorsements, but are not willing to risk those same endorsements by taking a stand for a controversial political stance? It’s looking like a duck, it’s quacking like a duck, so it’s not a pigeon.

The legendary Jim Brown

Many high profile athletes who are of African descent are bound by their bank accounts to multi-national corporations who will snatch those endoresments away at the first sign of an athlete doing or saying anything that goes against their corporate image. Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, Chad Johnson and Michael Vick are the best recent examples of this phenomenon that I can think of. Public opinion is paramount to these companies. If the public turns against these athletes then the corporations feel as if the public has turned against them by proxy. In some cases they actually do turn against the corporation as well. Tiger’s infidelity, Chad’s head-butting incident, Kobe’s rape case and Vick’s dealings with dog fighting, turned public opinion against them and thus they became corporate liabilities. But has the community actually grown past the need for selfless celebrities or is the very idea that a millionaire would risk his livilihood to take a controversial political stance in favor of the African Diaspora childish?

Maybe the truth is simply that we don’t deserve another Ali figure. After all, we are a people who, when presented with the perfect example of a young woman deserving of our praise and adulation in Olympic gold medal winning gymnast Gabrielle Douglas, talked about her hair. Her hair for pete’s sake! Do you realize what this young woman just accomplished? Do you have any idea how difficult it is for someone so young to sacrifice her entire childhood to accomplish a goal? In the midst of it all, while she’s up there representing the United States, much of the African American public is making fun of one of her most African features. The irony isn’t lost on me.  But the whole hair deal?  That’s only what’s being reported in the press.  I’ve heard many unflattering statements fall from the mouths of black Olympic viewers disparaging the accomplishments and beauty of this young woman.

I have a confession to make. Ever since I was around 12 years old I have been looking for the next Muhammad Ali in sports, true story! That Ali figure did not have to be a boxer. I was actually hoping it was a basketball player. From that time up until today the closest thing to activism that I’ve seen from a superstar is the show of solidarity displayed by LeBron James, D. Wade and the rest of the Miami Heat during the Trayvon Martin affair. While I cannot repeat enough how I appreciated finally witnessing professional athletes take a stand on a controversial issue, I also have to state that they simply put on hoodies for Trayvon Martin in a case that appeared to initially be cut and dry. Though the issue has been polarizing, those individuals using James’ participation in the Million Hoody March as a reason not to like him wouldn’t have liked him had he participated in it or not. No endorser would dare drop an athlete for taking a popular stand.  At least not immediately.  Hiding amid a million hoodies is easier than standing alone. What about the fact most little black boys who die in this country are killed by other little black boys? Nobody’s going to touch that one, huh? But a white guy shoots and kills a black teenager and that’s an issue tailor made for athletic activism in the modern age?

As I watched this year’s Olympic Games I am amazed at some of the athletic feats I’m witnessing. Usain Bolt of Jamaica is arguably the fastest man in Olympic history, a team of elite NBA athletes coming within a hair of being defeated by upstart Lithuanian team and the dominance of the Williams sisters in tennis is one for the ages. But I’m always looking for that next one. That person who embodies all of those traits that I imagine an athletic activist should have: athetic dominance, strength of character, show stopping charisma and possesing the belief that the black community is in need of as many advocates as it can get.

LeBron James once told ESPN that he wanted to be global icon on the level of Muhammad Ali. I know you just won your first NBA championship and all, but we’re going to need you to hurry up and step into your Ali mode. However, Ali is still such a revered figure in part because he refused to be bought by anyone. I am skeptical of LeBron’s pedigree when it comes to activism, but I am hopeful as well.  Until then I will sit and watch the world’s greatest athletes perform feats of physical wonder with glee, but I’ll still be wondering about what has been, and what could still be, when it comes to athletes engaging in the grand dialogue as in days of old.