Those of us in the United States often consider sports to be a pastime, a profession, something which reflects our lifestyle. It is rare to find someone who regards sports as a force for political or social change. However one of my friends, who is is very much of an activist, begged to differ one day when we were having such a discussion. Look to the past, he said. But before I got to the grist in this post, I was interrupted by a frantic text from my brother. “What do you know about low cost std test kits?” Everyone treats me like a walking information desk. Instead of texting, I called immediately. “I take it you had unprotected sex and are now freaking out. This is what you can do without going to a clinic or your regular doctor. Check out this website which I will text you as soon as we hang up. The kits can be shipped expedited and in a day or two you will have it in hand. The test itself is easy to administer and you get results in 15 minutes. With accuracy between 95-99% and globally certified they are pretty reliable. If you test positive see a doctor and call your sex partner. If negative, your stress is gone with no medical records!. And for goodness sakes, use a condom the next time.” Yeah, well, I guess I am an information desk.
Now, continuing with the subject of sports, politics, and social change….
The most obvious icon is Jesse Owens, coming from the segregated south and encountering overt or subtle racism at every step of his career. His world records and gold medals destroyed Adolf Hitler’s plan to use the 1936 Berlin Olympics to showcase the superiority of the “master race”, but on the whole Owens discovered that he was actually treated with more acceptance and honor in Germany (and Europe in general) than at home. Owens later disappointed many by refusing to be a racial and political symbol, repeatedly claiming that money was the only truly important goal.
The cultural and political climate of the 1960s saw a number of sports figures taking part in challenging established social norms. In refusing the draft, Muhammad Ali certainly came to epitomize protest, a symbol of strength, individualism, and pride, but it was John Carlos and Tommie Smith who raised the potent “Black Power salute” during the 1968 Olympics — to the overwhelming boos of the crowd, criticism by the mainstream media, and ultimate expulsion by the head of the International Olympic Committee, the infamous and detestable Avery Brundage.
Meanwhile, Arthur Ashe scored an equally significant, but more subtle point when he became the first black man to win the U.S. Tennis Championship in 1968. A long battle for female equality hit a milestone when Billie Jean King won the widely-publicized “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in 1973. However, the 1970s also saw the rise of the athlete as a larger-than-life entertainment personality, with celebrities such as Joe Namath. There would be few milestones and protests in the decades that followed.
An athlete’s only challenge to society in the modern era is typically inadvertent; a high-profile criminal case now and then, which may or may not dredge up debates on racial or gender issues, or possibly an examination of drug use — all valid areas of discourse, but rarely leading to any significant legal or cultural change. Almost without exception, athletes are less concerned about any ’cause’ aside from their own professional and financial advancement — so you might say that Jesse Owens, at least in his decline, was indeed a template for today’s professional athlete.
** Update ** In some cases, rare as they are you see a professional athlete doing what they can to improve society through politics. Many can say that they are only taking a logical step in continuing their career but it is obvious that some of them have the best of intentions when they choose the path of public service.