Monday, April 28, 2014

The Question of the Obligation of the Athlete to Take a Stand Against Moral Wrongs

What is the proper role for an athlete in the spotlight, given the opportunity to make a statement of protest against outrageous conduct?

In the early 1990's an earlier version of Donald Sterling, one Marge Schott, was owner of the Cincinnati Reds. With a combination of arrogance and apparent absence of self awareness, she castigated blacks, Jews and almost anyone that stepped in her path. For this, she was twice suspended by the league and eventually more than gently pushed to sell out her ownership interest. But there was little or no talk of player revolt in the face of her behavior.

It is rather echoes of the 1968 Olympics that could be seen in the actions by the Clipper players before game 4. Tommie Smith and John Carlos chose the medals award ceremony to make a very loud statement of their opposition to apartheid in South Africa and to continuing racial segregation in the United States. It was a moment that seemed uniquely situated to demand a response. For their single, black gloved, raised fist, Smith and Carlos were castigated and compelled to leave the Games.

This year, in the face of the Vladimir Putin laws against homosexuality, and the controversy that it created, the Olympic games were conducted without even the hint of a Smith/Carlos moment.

So, where and when is the right time for the athlete to become something else, to become an advocate, a spokesperson, a force for change? Even the reporting of the New York Times comes to seemingly different conclusions about the adequacy of the reply of the Clipper players to the antics of Mr. Sterling ("Amid Uproar,Clippers Silently Display Solidarity" versus "Given Cause to Make a Stand, A Team Settles for a Gesture").

I am, much like your newspaper, of two different minds on this question. Athletes are not schooled in the world of protest and politics. It is not their chosen role and it is hard for us to find they must be the voice of passion and persuasion in challenging unmitigated wrong. On the other hand, these are people who have been given center stage and a once in a lifetime chance to force us to take a long and hard look at our prejudices. If they can move us even a little in the right direction, does this not become a much larger issue than the game they play?

Donald Sterling is in the eye of the storm, and he deserves whatever punishment is forthcoming. For the players, the questions will abound as to whether theirs was an act of bravery or something far less.

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