Race, class and the silent

Athletes, too, need to speak out.

Athletes cannot be isolated from the society that celebrates them. The perfect athletes not only sacrifice their souls for the sake of competition, but transcend their sports. The names of athletes brave enough to speak out stand out from their times: Ashe, Didrikson, Owens. Sadly, today’s top professional athletes have refused to take similar risks for the betterment of society.

Not since Charles Barkley has an athlete truly challenged his or her role in society. Only Dallas Maverick Steve Nash, and Toronto Blue, Jay Carlos Delgado have protested the Iraq war with noticeable coverage. It is worth noting that Nash is Canadian and Delgado is from the Dominican Republic. They, however, are not nearly as popular as Tiger Woods or Kevin Garnett. Other than charity work, both Woods and Garnett have failed to confront societal issues in a public and truly effective manner.

Two reasons, of the many possible, are readily apparent for the silence of today’s top athletes. An underlying class-ism and racism confronts every athlete daring to voice an opinion. Because many lack college degrees or are stereotyped as “dumb athletes,” their opinions are considered by some to be unimportant or meaningless. As in the case of Allen Iverson and Rasheed Wallace, some are misunderstood and their images are bastardized for profit.

Professional athletes are a commodity and told to “shut up and play,” because supposedly they are only paid to play. Such logic is asinine, because, at its conclusion, only politicians who directly deal in politics would be allowed an opinion. The fact that many athletes come from economic backgrounds far below that of the season-ticket holders and regular game attending fans is never mentioned.

Perhaps professional athletes lose their moral standing when they are paid many more times the amount of what their parents ever made. This tension between athletic and societal reality was readily apparent when the Detroit Pistons won the NBA championship last July. Detroit has lost more than 36,000 jobs over the past year. According to the 2000 Census, Detroit is the most segregated metropolitan region in the country. An eight-mile stretch of asphalt separates the white part of Detroit that attends the basketball games from the black part of Detroit, which has been hardest hit by the job losses.

In Garnett’s case, it is not only class but race that has probably played a part in his silence. In Minnesota, race is an issue that is rarely addressed in a substantive sense. Less than 4 percent of the population in Minnesota is black. There is an unspoken fear of tattoos, hairstyles and black men. Minnesotans prefer their black athletes to be more like Garnett than Randy Moss. They emerge when their prospective season starts and then they disappear, not to be heard from for months.

Garnett plays well, never mentions politics and rarely shows a brash side. When the season is over, he disappears into the flossy background of the offseason. Moss, despite his greatness, is disdained at every minor infraction. Garnett is adored, but that would change if he decided to speak out.

I am inclined to believe that race and class differences have kept professional athletes quiet. The issues of class and race are not dead. They are just being confronted less. U.S. sports have always been in line with race and class struggle. We are barraged with images of the black man as a wild animal, as in the case of Mike Tyson, or as a “black raper,” as in the case of Kobe Bryant.

Sports can and must mix with politics at some point. Sometimes, it is celebrated, like the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. Sometimes, it is scorned, as was the case of Muhammad Ali’s conscientious objection. Politicians have no trouble blending sports with politics. Athletes should do the same. Like artists, like politicians and like true students, athletes cannot exist in their own world of focused disconnection.

Karl Noyes is an editorial board member. He welcomes comments at [email protected]