Black Athletes and Activism

Experts from ESPN discuss at GW the pros and cons of athletes taking public stands on sometimes controversial issues.

ESPN's Kevin Merida (l), Jason Reid and Michael Wilbon talked about black athletes and activism at JMA.
February 15, 2017

By B. L. Wilson

The legendary boxer Jack Johnson’s story is a favorite of Michael Wilbon, the co-host of ESPN’s show, “Pardon the Interruption,” who took part Monday night in a discussion on the impact of African American athletes on U.S. life and culture.

“He was certainly the first that had a platform… and it was dangerous,” Mr. Wilbon told an audience at George Washington University’s Jack Morton Auditorium, relating how Johnson’s defeat of America’s white heavyweight boxing champion in 1910 triggered riots around the country.

“Now (black athletes) have different forms of media to use, social media,” he said. “Jack Johnson didn’t have control of any of it except his own intellect and sense of daring.”

Kevin Merida, an ESPN senior vice president and editor of the online magazine, The Undefeated, and Jason Reid, a senior NFL writer at the magazine, joined Mr. Wilbon in a Black Heritage Month event sponsored by GW’s Association of Black Journalists in collaboration with GW’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Equity and the School of Media and Public Affairs.

The forum was held at a time of heightened interest in the influence of sports on politics. Several players with the New England Patriots, this year’s Superbowl champions, have announced that they won’t be going to the White House when President Donald Trump welcomes the team. The players’ decisions are controversial in some circles, but one that Mr. Wilbon said was misspent energy.

“There are so many things we need to direct our attention on that are frightening,” he said. “Things that are coming right at us every day, and we are worried about the Patriots?”

Mr. Merida, a former managing editor of The Washington Post, said though that those Patriots players and other athletes “have always had the ability to kind of connect dots and issues and create attention.”

He was reminded of the “tremendous impact” that sports have had on human and civil rights, he said, when he visited the San Jose State University for the opening of its Institute for the Study of Sports, Race and Social Change. The site includes a statue of 1968 Olympic champions Tommy Smith and John Carlos with black gloves on raised fists.

“Everybody will remember the black fisted salute,” said Mr. Merida. “That’s still an iconic image in African American life.”

However, Mr. Reid said, there was another side to that Olympics protest.

“The platform that they had, a lot of athletes don’t embrace that, don’t want to take a stand like that,” Mr. Reid said. “That was a different time. There are a lot of people in the Olympic Organizing Committee were angry that they did that, they felt that was not the place for that. They were sent home.”

Mr. Wilbon remembered watching that moment from the ’68 Olympics in Mexico on television with his parents when he was 10 years old.

“For those guys, it cost them money, fame and stature,” Mr. Wilbon said. “It took their lives and careers in a direction they didn’t have to go.”

The moderator Cheryl W. Thompson, associate professor of media and public affairs and a Washington Post investigative reporter, wondered whether activism that now seems commonplace belongs in sports.

The panelists agreed that whether the fans like it or not, there’s no going back, especially with so many media platforms available.

Athletes are citizens of the world, Mr. Merida said, and it’s unrealistic to expect them not to want to be a part of what is happening.

“Your friends are talking about it, your family members are talking about it, and you know you can respond,” he said. “Many of them respond first on their social media platform, and they get interviewed by (sports writers) and say what they have said elsewhere.”

There have always been activist athletes such as Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King and Kareem Abdul Jabbar for whom it was a point of pride to take a stand, Mr. Wilbon told the large crowd in the auditorium. But the size of the purse now commanded by certain athletes leads them to feel a special responsibility to the black community, he said, adding that the wealth and value of athletes to a sports franchise means there are fewer repercussions if they have something to say.

“LeBron James has generated so much wealth, who’s going to threaten him?” Mr. Wilbon asked. “What’s the owner going to take from him, his shoe contract? He makes more money off the court than he makes on the court.”

But Mr. Reid reminded them that even LeBron James and Dwayne Wade were subjected to hostile fan reaction when they donned hoods on social media to protest the killing of Trayvon Martin. “There was so much hate,” he said, “and the backlash they got from people who just wanted them to stay in their lane and dunk the ball.”

When women in the WNBA tried something similar, coming out in black T-shirts for a pregame warm up, they were fined, until formidable figures like Serena and Venus Williams and Billie Jean King spoke up, Mr. Wilbon pointed out, forcing the league to back down.

Ms. Thompson asked about other big names such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods—athletes who have been criticized for not doing more to support the black community.

Mr. Wilbon responded that activism is not for everyone. Tiger Woods has built learning centers for students around the country, he said, adding that he has tried to persuade Michael Jordan to talk about his charitable contributions.

“Somebody needs to fund activism,” he said. “Michael Jordan is giving a lot of money to stuff.”



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