When asked the other day if USA Basketball players should speak out on human rights issues in China, Kobe Bryant said in effect that he and other players are not politicians but are there to “play the game.” Normally I would say that’s a big cop-out! After all, we know the power of the dollar these days and how much marketing makes a difference as players follow the “Jordan Rules” for remaining race and issue neutral on all things that do not pertain to promoting themselves or their brand. I could site LeBron James’ reluctance to speak out about Nike sweat shops as an example.
For sure the days of the concious athlete, i.e. Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, John Carlos and Tommy Smith, hell Billy Jean King are gone for the most part. The rare exceptions for example are basketball players like Adonal Foyle, Dikembe Mutombo, and Etan Thomas. Craig Hodges the former sharpshooter for the Bulls during the early Jordan years gave a letter to the president at the Rose Garden during their championship visit. The letter talked about poverty and brought up issues that Hodges and others were concerned about that rarely ever get presidential attention. He was blackballed by the league after that. These people are conscious of not just their personal benefit and consumption from the sport, but of community and world affairs. I don’t expect Kobe Bryant to know or care much about Tienanmen Square in 1989. I don’t know that he is familiar with the issues regarding greater Los Angeles. I would rather those speak who do know the issues so that the” stars” don’t make fools of themselves or degrade the cause.
And so it goes with these Olympic games in Beijing. I didn’t expect athletes with monolithic perspectives to chime in on weighty issues such as the Chinese human rights policy or the geopolitical stand of The Dali Lama. Too bad the Olympics are in China in the first place, but perhaps we could just play nice and get through the games. NOT! Not now that the Chinese government has revoked the visa of Olympic Gold Medalist skater Joey Cheek. Cheek is the founder of Team Darfur, a group of 70 athletes whose goal is to raise awareness of the human rights violations taking place in the Darfur region of The Sudan as told by Yahoo Sports. China has many military, economic and diplomatic ties to The Sudan.
Again, initially I understood the modern athlete’s reluctance to get into political discussions during the games. After all, it takes all one has just to prepare to qualify to compete with the best in the world on the world’s biggest stage. The Olympics only happen once every four years. Many American athletes have toed the line and not made any political statements regarding Chinese human rights issues and have focused their energies to promoting the games and making them attractive to fans, who may not otherwise know them. However, China has thrown down the gauntlet two days before the opening ceremonies themselves. American athletes should respond likewise by voicing their disdain for the way the Chinese have decided to treat Cheek. They should use every opportunity especially during the medal presentations to make it their business to rally around a fellow American. Talk about patriotism! This is not a time to be politically correct but to make a morally definitive statement in supporting another American’s attempt to make the world better. With the treatment of a great American like Cheek, it is unacceptable for any athlete to say with a straight face that it’s “just about the games.” Damn the endorsements – speak truth to power!