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More Athletes Are Speaking Out On Social Issues Than Ever Before


Big time athletes really put their professional careers on the line if they decide to stand up for a social cause, and commentator Frank Deford says this is something that's been going on in sports for decades.

FRANK DEFORD, BYLINE: There's no question that athletes, college as well as pro, have been more outspoken on social issues than ever before. This is quite a change. In fact, for a long time, players tended to be criticized for not being like the passionate activists that we'd seen in the '60s and '70s - Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe. I always thought that was unfair of the critics for the athletes of the late 20th century, who are essentially only mirroring their young peers. When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the black power salute at the '68 Olympics, young Americans of all stripes were in a protest mode. When, a couple decades later, Michael Jordan was pilloried for not picking up a pitchfork and storming the barricades of injustice, his cohort of fans was hardly any more revolutionary than he was. People sometimes forget how immature outside the sideline stripes so many of our young physical heroes are. And then when they do speak up about anything, there is invariably a large element of fandom that calls out for them to just take the big money and play ball and shut up. After all, it's revealing that entertainers are almost never expected to do anything but talk about their new movie and who designed their gown. Have you ever heard one word of substance on any red carpet? Athletes, of course, are more accessible and, as Colin Kaepernick certainly instructed us, more visible. The 49er quarterback first sat, then kneeled during pre-game renditions of the national anthem. Myself, I found the reaction something of a tempest in a teapot. Of course Kaepernick had every right to express himself. But it seems to me that if you use the "Star-Spangled Banner," you're really casting an indiscriminate net in as much as the anthem represents the whole of our government, our policies, our good and our bad. It's interesting that the nation's premier star, LeBron James, is among those unafraid to speak his piece. James has acted wisely in carefully laying out whatever is eating at him. As an African-American, when black players are so dominant in popular sports, we could even say that James holds something of an honorary position that even the fabled Ali did not possess in his time, when white athletes were still then majority. As such, LeBron James has become something of a unique cultural figure in American sports history.

(SOUNDBITE OF MALCOM KIPE SONG, "LOVE STORY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.