Sports, so­cial is­sues linked in ways un­seen for decades.

Sports, so­cial is­sues linked in 2016 in ways un­seen for decades

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY TODD DYBAS

Go back almost 25 years. That’s when Charles Barkley was mak­ing an an­nounce­ment for the public, one that stirred a dis­cus­sion about the so­cial re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of an ath­lete. “I am not a role model,” Barkley said in 1993. The then-NBA su­per­star’s com­ment be­came a fo­cus of con­ver­sa­tion around the public tasks of ath­letes. Utah Jazz power for­ward Karl Malone pushed back at Barkley by writ­ing a col­umn for Sports Il­lus­trated say­ing ath­letes were au­to­mat­i­cally role models be­cause of their plat­form. Sides aligned them­selves, and, per usual, Michael Jor­dan re­mained largely silent on any­thing that would have po­ten­tially taken him off-mes­sage or cur­tailed his mar­ket­ing dol­lars.

Fast for­ward to 2016, when lo­cal and na­tional ath­letes in­ter­jected them­selves re­peat­edly into ma­jor so­cial is­sues. From protests of the na­tional an­them to dec­o­ra­tive cleats to the re­lo­ca­tion of a league’s ma­jor event, the sports world be­came in­ter­twined with cul­tural hap­pen­ings in 2016 in a way it had not since the 1970s.

Take Jor­dan as an ex­am­ple. For years, decades even, his out­stretched sil­hou­ette was arguably the most fa­mous sym­bol in sports para­pher­na­lia, per­haps just be­hind the swoosh of the com­pany dis­tribut­ing it, Nike. Jor­dan was crit­i­cized in the past for not par­tic­i­pat­ing in so­cial top­ics, seen as only con­cerned with the next sale of shoes and “Be like Mike” cam­paigns. But, in 2016, even he waded into public dis­course, if only in a moder­ate way. Jor­dan put out a let­ter that said in part he was “deeply trou­bled by the deaths of African-Amer­i­cans at the hands of law en­force­ment and an­gered by the cow­ardly and hate­ful tar­get­ing and killing of po­lice of­fi­cers.”

In typ­i­cal Jor­dan fash­ion, this was a pack­aged and man­aged state­ment for the public — that he put

one forth was a sig­nal of change for him.

Noth­ing stirred more re­sponse dur­ing the year than a backup quar­ter­back re­main­ing seated, then tak­ing a knee, dur­ing the na­tional an­them be­fore NFL games. The protest of San Fran­cisco quar­ter­back Colin Kaeper­nick was un­no­ticed at first. He sat on the bench when the na­tional an­them was sung in the first two games of the pre­sea­son. Aug. 26, he was spot­ted sit­ting just in front of Ga­torade cool­ers while his team­mates stood. From there, Kaeper­nick’s ac­tions be­came one of the sto­ries of the year.

The de­ci­sions by Jor­dan and, more in­flu­en­tially Kaeper­nick, spurred other ath­letes to fol­low suit in var­i­ous ways. In Wash­ing­ton, wide re­ceiver DeSean Jack­son, a Los An­ge­les na­tive, wore cleats with yel­low cau­tion tape on them.

“I felt the need to do it,” said Jack­son af­ter a game Week 4 against the Cleve­land Browns. “I felt like I’ve been silent long enough. It’s a big­ger prob­lem out there in the com­mu­ni­ties, in our so­ci­ety, things like the type of sit­u­a­tions [where] peo­ple los­ing their lives, fam­i­lies like that. Lit­tle kids go­ing home and not hav­ing their par­ents no more be­cause of crazy things go­ing on; so as far as the re­sponse, what­ever the re­sponse is, that’s what it is, but I felt that it was time for me to make a stance and speak up on it.”

There was push­back and me­di­a­tion fol­low­ing the dis­plays of protest. Kaeper­nick be­gan tak­ing a knee in­stead of sit­ting dur­ing the na­tional an­them af­ter talk­ing with Nate Boyer, a for­mer Green Beret who had a brief pre­sea­son stop with the Seat­tle Sea­hawks in 2015. At times, NFL play­ers raised fists on the side­line dur­ing the an­them. These ac­tions dur­ing the start of the NFL sea­son made many won­der what would hap­pen when the NBA tipped off near Hal­loween.

Teams in­ter­nally dis­cussed what to do. The Wash­ing­ton Wizards joined many NBA teams in a de­ci­sion to lock arms dur­ing the na­tional an­them. At some Wizards and Red­skins games, the oc­ca­sional fan can be seen sit­ting dur­ing the an­them. No player has.

The big­gest de­ci­sion from the NBA came when, in an un­prece­dented move, it re­lo­cated its All-Star Game from Char­lotte to New Or­leans be­cause of North Carolina’s House Bill 2, also col­lo­qui­ally known as the “bath­room bill.”

“While we rec­og­nize that the NBA can­not choose the law in ev­ery city, state and coun­try in which we do busi­ness, we do not be­lieve we can suc­cess­fully host our All-Star fes­tiv­i­ties in Char­lotte in the cli­mate cre­ated by the cur­rent law,” the league said in a state­ment.

All this in a year when Muham­mad Ali, one of the most prom­i­nent ath­lete ac­tivists in his­tory, died. As the cal­en­dar turns, the ques­tions are about what’s next. Will 2017 pig­gy­back off the state­ments and ac­tions of 2016? Will vis­ual dis­plays give way to more tan­gi­ble pur­suits? Or will the main­te­nance of brand cause ath­letes to re­vert to the quiet time that ran from when Barkley de­cried a la­bel that said he was a role model to 2015?

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