Football legend Jim Brown, in his crusade against apathy among black athletes, has labeled them a bunch of "misguided young men." Craig Hodges of the Chicago Bulls has blasted his own superstar teammate, Michael Jordan, for not speaking out on social and political issues. And Jesse Jackson has begun sermonizing about pro black athletes committing more personal and financial resources.
What specifically can these black success stories do to help the African-American community? On the surface, the notion of a few well-heeled athletes waging a war on poverty seems naive. After all, Jordan and other stars already do substantial charitable work. Do they really bear any greater responsibility for righting the nation's wrongs than the rest of society? Their collective fortunes are puny when set against the social ills plaguing black communities. And as Detroit Pistons guard Isiah Thomas points out: "Just because a guy can slam-dunk a basketball or throw a football doesn't mean you want him speaking out on social issues."
Maybe not. But few have even tried. As precious commodities in the multibillion-dollar sports industry and as celebrity pitchmen for major U.S. companies, they do carry tremendous clout. And sports stars command the respect and admiration of today's youth as few others can. So why aren't pro black athletes making more noise?
CORPORATE PRESSURE. Apathy is one reason. Enjoying a life of fancy cars, expensive suburban homes, and off-season jaunts abroad, many black pro athletes are insulated from everyday struggles. Sports agent Leigh Steinberg, known for urging his clients to become more active in social causes, says he's amazed at how a hefty contract can turn a poor kid from the ghetto into a self-absorbed millionaire who's "always bitching and moaning about taxes."
Another big reason they're not more involved, though, is that social activism is often frowned upon by team owners as well as the companies that hire pros as product spokesmen. As Philip de Picciotto, managing director of sports marketing firm Advantage International, puts it: "Companies go for athletes with the broadest appeal--and that means the least controversial."
But as highly sought-after pitchmen, black athletes are in a rare position to make a few demands themselves. Says Richard Lapchick, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport: "If an athlete says, `I'm not going to endorse your product until you get involved in the community,' the company's going to listen." Black owners of inner-city sporting goods stores, for example, often complain that they face difficulty lining up shipments from major manufacturers of shoes, clothing, and equipment. Black athletes could push those companies to expand their use of black-owned businesses as retail outlets.
Black pro athletes could also use their stardom to pressure leagues and teams. Thanks to Jordan's feats, the Bulls are a safe bet to sell out every home game until the end of the century. So why couldn't Jordan demand that Bulls principal owner Jerry M. Reinsdorf donate a small portion of his gate receipts to a local public school? Similarly, players' associations could press the leagues to spend a percentage of revenues on social programs.
ALL TALK. There are small signs of change. To negotiate his multimillion-dollar contract with the Green Bay Packers, first-round draft choice Terrell Buckley bypassed the big names and hired fledgling black agent Carl Poston of Houston. "I've seen so many black pro athletes come back to the neighborhood and preach but never take any action," Buckley says. "I wanted to combat the stereotype that if you deal with a black business, you get ripped off and you lose." His choice may seem little more than symbolic, but investing in black businesses is a critical first step in empowering black communities economically.
As Steinberg puts it: "Athletes need to envision themselves as more than simply athletes." That's a difficult notion in a society that has come to expect little more from its pro players than fresh material for the highlight films. But Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, and Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos are heroes among blacks not just for their athletic accomplishments. They put themselves at risk to stand for racial equality and dignity. How much are today's black pro athletes willing to risk?