Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
As high-profile events periodically prove, politics and athletics have long had a love-hate relationship, the affinity ebbing and flowing with the cultural tides. In the tumultuous 1960s, for instance, stars like Muhammed Ali, Arthur Ashe and John Carlos used their notoriety to embolden the major social movements of the time. Then came the 1980s and 1990s, which saw the sports world depoliticized in an age of “Just Do It” and “greed is good.” For every Charles Barkley using Nike commercials to forward social messages about role models, there were far more Michael Jordans who avoided any political statements whatsoever.
Skip forward to 2012 — a superheated moment primed by seething protest campaigns and a divisive presidential election. Not surprisingly, the sports world has again shifted, becoming just as politically fraught as the society it entertains — and whether or not you agree with a particular sports icon’s opinion, the larger change is a welcome development for participatory democracy.
In the last few years, we’ve seen sports activism at every locus on the ideological continuum. On the right, football phenom Tim Tebow starred in an antiabortion Super Bowl ad. In the transpartisan middle, Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas refused to attend the White House’s Stanley Cup ceremony because he said he “believe(s) the Federal government has grown out of control.” And on the left, Major League Baseball teams have led public campaigns against anti-gay bullying.
No matter the issue, sports is now involved. The NFL players association has proudly supported public workers’ high-profile fights. Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen (clumsily) highlighted the hypocrisy of an American government that at once embraces various dictators but shuns Cuba’s autocratic regime. And, of course, LeBron James organized Miami Heat players into a hoodie-themed photo in solidarity with those demanding an investigation into the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
James’ move best highlights the veering undercurrents. As the Bleacher Report’s Ryne Hodkowski noted, the NBA star for years mimicked Jordan and other 1990s-molded “corporate athletes who don’t say anything political in fear of losing a big-time contract.”
Now, though, even carefully managed figures like James are weighing in on national controversies. Such moves exemplify both personal courage and, as important, an America that has suddenly become politically engaged. Indeed, fans now expect their sports deities to embrace that new normal — and, as James shows, those deities are increasingly responding to the call.
Many criticize this transformation, insisting that athletes should play ball and keep quiet about anything else. Summing up that belief in the wake of Guillen’s impolitic comments, Politico’s Jonathan Allen declared that athletes should “just shut up” and play.
On the surface, the jeremiad may seem perfectly reasonable — but its deeper suppositions are abhorrently elitist and anti-democratic. They assume that only certain kinds of establishment-vetted individuals — specifically, professional political operatives, politicians, pundits and reporters — have standing to promote political causes.
That sentiment should be offensive not just to athletes, but to anyone not of the professional political class. Because, really, if a baseball manager or a basketball player somehow has no right to speak out, why should a plumber or a factory worker have that right?
In a political culture constantly paying homage to the working-class creed, few would — or should — say that such blue-collar laborers must simply “shut up and work.” It should be the same standard for athletes. The more these public figures exercise their right to speak out on major issues, the more they help teach younger generations that politics is not a game only for Washington, D.C., elites, nor a punch line only to laugh at during “The Daily Show” — but a critical battle of ideas that requires everyone’s participation.
David Sirota is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com. More David Sirota.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)