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Is activism a bad word in sports?

Ira NewbleAre athletes involved in non-sports causes "activists"? And if so, why is that such a bad thing?

A recent NY Times article profiled a letter-writing campaign headed by Ira Newble, an NBA player, aimed at pressuring China to intervene in the desperate situation in Darfur. Many of Newble's teammates (he was with Cleveland at the time) apparently signed the letter he wrote to China's president, Hu Jintao. LeBron James was not one of them, yet the article managed to focus on him, and even went out of its way to excuse James's decision not to sign the letter. This is how the writer characterizes James:

...[James is a] superstar extraordinaire in the Michael Jordan risk-averse mold. King James's reticence was tied to his lucrative affiliation with Nike, which is heavily invested in China. He is also an ambassador in an N.B.A. globalization plan that is focused on the Beijing Olympics.

The writer manages to defend the superstar's behavior, which had not even been criticized, while referring to Newble as a "journeyman" and "athlete activist." The subtext is that intervention in Darfur (or any other kind of activism) is important-important enough to get Newble, an NBA "journeyman" recognition in the NY Times-but it's not important enough for LeBron James to risk ruffling any feathers at Nike. This sounds an awful lot like the rationalizations of people who say it's possible for a retired "journeyman" like John Amaechi to come out of the closet, but not a player who's actually well-known for his basketball skills. What is it about famous athletes that encourages us (fans and media alike) to defend and excuse them from their social responsibilities, as well as their humanity, instead of engaging the positive examples set by so-called activists?

Sports have the potential to be a powerful catalyst for positive social change across the culture, and I wish more athletes with real influence could speak their minds without fearing pressure from their leagues or their sponsors to shut up and play. True, I'm not eager to hear all athletes' social views (Tim Hardaway comes to mind), but I think any dialogue does more good than harm (Hardaway didn't make any friends with his I-hate-gays comments and the resulting dialogue actually drew out a few gay-friendly comments from other players). Maybe issues like homophobia, race and performance-enhancing drugs wouldn't simmer to the point of crisis if it wasn't so un-PC for athletes to have an opinion.

So, why is it so un-PC to be an activist? And, how can I be one? Am I an activist for being an openly gay athlete? If so, which part am I an activist for: being gay or being an athlete?

One cause that isn't lacking any athlete activists is God (did you see Tim Tebow's Heisman acceptance? You can see it here on, that's right, GodTube). But now I'll stop myself before I risk compromising any "lucrative affiliations" with You Know Who. --Ryan Quinn