- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A series of recent public service announcements about domestic violence and sexual assault features celebrities as well as current and former NFL players.

Other athletes and celebrities — such as Lance Armstrong, Drew Brees and Jim Kelly — have been outspoken advocates for funding and research in the fight against chronic diseases.

I don’t recall any complaints about stars using their platforms for those causes.

But that’s not the case when players raise their hands in “Don’t Shoot” fashion or wear T-shirts that read “I Can’t Breathe.” In those instances, critics argue that athletes should shut up and play.

Let me get this straight: It’s perfectly fine for players to take stands on certain issues and illnesses, as long it’s not the issue and illness of racism?

Sorry, but that reasoning fails the sniff test. Thankfully, some athletes are no longer willing to hold their nose and look away.

Nearly a half-century has passed since U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists on the medal stand during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. The gesture was dubbed a Black Power salute, but the men said it was a call for human rights reform everywhere.

They were suspended from the U.S. team, banned from the Olympic Village and roundly criticized.

Few black athletes since then have been willing to speak out on rights — human and/or civil — with notable exceptions such as Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe. But there’s been a shift lately — and here’s hoping its permanent.

Five St. Louis Rams players took the field two weeks ago with their hands up in a show of support for Michael Brown, the unarmed teen killed by police officer Darren Wilson in nearby Ferguson, Missouri. The players came under scrutiny from the St. Louis Police Officers Association, but they weren’t punished by the league or team.

“They realize that there is a need for a voice and they had the right opportunity — like we did — to be that voice, to be heard,” Carlos told the New York Daily News. “Their job was to go out and to play football, but that doesn’t preclude them from what’s happening in society.”

During pregame warm-ups on Monday, several players on the Cleveland Cavaliers and Brooklyn Nets wore “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts, a reference to the last words of Eric Garner, the unarmed man killed by police officer Daniel Pantaleo in New York. LeBron James wore one, as did Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose two days earlier.

“I couldn’t care less about who else weighs in on this,” Rose told CNN when asked whether pro athletes should express their opinions on the matter. “Usually athletes tend to stay away from this, but I just felt as if I had to do something it.”

I’m glad more athletes are speaking out, especially James, the game’s biggest star. He’s proving to be the anti-Michael Jordan, a flesh-and-blood human being who breathes and feels, opposed to a steely-cold pitchman who just sells and sells.

Jordan had every right to stray from public comment on social issues. And athletes from earlier generations had every reason to fear repercussions for taking stances. But anyone who feels strongly and wishes to express his opinion certainly has that right.

“It’s just for us to make a [statement] to understand what we’re going through as a society,” James told reporters. “… Obviously, as a society we have to do better. We have to be better for one another. It doesn’t matter what race you are.”

Today’s age of social media is perfect for expanding a message further, giving those in the public eye on even greater exposure. It’s a shame if someone with a burning passion to lend a hand keeps it behind his back instead.

“They’re incredible stars that people will listen to,” Magic Johnson told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “I’m so happy they’re socially conscious … and they want to use their platform and their voice.”

We’re not going to agree with every stance on every issue. Charles Barkley’s recent take on Ferguson, for example, was an example of gross ignorance and over-simplification. But he’s entitled to make them.

We can’t have it both ways, where sports are used as symbols and bonding-agents in times of crises and disaster, but shelved when the topics are more sensitive and politically-charged.

If they’re good for building patriotism and civic pride, for fighting domestic violence and cancer, they’re good for building bridges to understanding, for fighting discrimination and systemic oppression.

“Sports recapitulates the most serious and deeply-rooted cultural social values in every society,” Cal-Berkeley professor emeritus Harry Edwards told NPR. Edwards, who created the Olympic Project for Human Rights in 1967, encouraged the silent protest by Smith and Carlos.

“Mike Brown was not a tragedy,” he said. “It was part of a pattern. Since Michael Brown was shot, there have been 14 young unarmed African-American men shot across this country. And this is what these athletes are saying, and I’m so proud of them I don’t know what to do.”

Applause and a “Way to go!” works for me.

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