When famed professional athletes publicly voice their concerns on social issues, does it matter? Ask the recipients of a $1.75 million donation from National Basketball Association players and an NBA corporate owner that was triggered by a single sympathetic player.
By donating his $200,000 game check Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade launched a cascade of giving last week in the wake of the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy in the New York-New Jersey region.
It’s not an uncommon phenomenon, according to Minnesota Vikings kicker Chris Kluwe who says that when the professional sports world takes an active stance on civil issues, the rest of society often follows its lead.
"When sports gets on board with a civil issue, then that issue is rapidly resolved in the next, you know, 10, 15 years,” Kluwe was quoted as saying in a CNN news report. “Sports speaks to a large segment of the population, and when kids look at athletes as role models, they say, 'OK, hey, these guys are saying it's OK if you're gay, it's OK to have same-sex marriage.'”
That was perhaps the theory Kluwe had in mind when he came to the defense of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbedejo, who was severely criticized by Maryland state Delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. for publicly voicing his support of same sex marriage, a non-sports, hot-button topic during the campaign season leading up to the 2012 elections.
Burns actually wrote a letter of complaint to Ayanbadejo’s employer, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, stating that he’s “appalled” and finds it “inconceivable” that one of his players would publicly endorse same sex marriage, stepping into what he described a “controversial divide.”
Burns went on to request that Biscotti take action against Ayanbadejo, and force him to “cease and desist” making any further endorsements of gay marriage, which eventually prompted Kluwe to come to the defense of his fellow NFL colleague.
“It honestly baffles me that in this day and age, someone can think stifling another's right to free speech is somehow OK,” Kluwe stated from his twitter account. “There's not a lot of that gets me seriously angry, but that's one of the few things on the list. Demand better from your government. Demand better from yourself.”
But Kluwe isn’t the only vocal pro athletic figure encouraging the public to demand more from the government. Former Washington Redskins linebacker and current media personality LaVar Arrington has been a pro-gaming spokesman in a TV ad endorsing Question 7 that, if endorsed by Maryland voters, would create a new resort casino in Prince George’s County, Md. and add table games like blackjack and roulette to all Maryland casinos.
“I hate losing; I hate it. But right now, we’re losing jobs and money for our schools to casinos in other states like West Virginia,” Arrington said during the commercial. “Question 7 creates 12,000 jobs with a new resort casino and expanded table games here in Maryland…so instead of spending $550 million in other states, it gets invested here.”
Maryland native Walter Hansborough, 27, told the AFRO that Arrington’s endorsement helped spread important facts to those who may not have known before seeing his commercial.
“In this area, half the people, especially younger voters, don’t really pay close attention to politics,” said Hansborough, who’s leaning toward voting yes. “LaVar was able to reach men, young men in particular, who had no idea what Question 7 was even about.”
But another Maryland resident and former political/community news writer, George Barnette, 32, disagreed with the notion that Arrington’s public message had any impact on potential voters.
“I don’t think LaVar’s ad made much of an impact and I’m not sure why [the producers of the commercial ad] went after LaVar rather than using a more popular ex-Redskins player to speak out to voters,” Barnette told the AFRO. “Popular athletes speaking out on civil issues can have a great effect on the general public, depending on what the issue actually is, though I’m not really sure that any athlete, popular or not, could’ve moved the needle on Question 7 in either direction.”
Barnette may have history on his side about what happens when social issues addressed by high-profile athletes result in a call to action for the general public. Muhammad Ali’s legendary dominance of heavyweight boxing was put on hold when he refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War in 1966.
Instead of enlisting, Ali spoke out against the war, saying, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
Ali’s stanc, which resulted in the loss of his titles and a ban from boxing, prompted widespread support through the U.S., part of the chorus of anti-war protests that hastened U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. Had another American boxer less popular than Ali took the same stance, the rest of the world may not have taken notice.
Distress triggered by Superstorm Sandy found relief from a National Basketball Association superstar recently. Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade said a recent game scheduled to be played at Madison Square Garden while the New York region struggled to recover from the lethal storm should have been canceled.
“I just felt there were bigger things to be concerned about than us being here to play a basketball game,” Wade said during a TV interview before the game. “Obviously, sports are things that take people’s minds away from things, but, you know, I think there’s bigger things that need to be done here in the city.”
Wade had tweeted before the game that it took the Heat team three hours just to drive six miles from the hotel to the arena, then reflected on how much more difficult it must be for the average citizen of average resources who had to deal with the aftershock of Hurricane Sandy.
"If we're in the car and we're in traffic for three hours,...what are the other people that are really affected by this, what are they doing? How are they getting around? How are they moving?” Wade said. "It was just like, 'C'mon man. We shouldn't be here to play a basketball game. If anything, we should be here to do something to help the city.'”
Wade’s vocal protest wasn’t able to get the NBA to cancel the game, but he was still able to make an impact financially by donating the paycheck that he earned from the game, a reported sum of more than $200,000, to towards relief funds for the storm’s victims. And according to ESPN reports, not long after Wade announced his donation, the Madison Square Garden Co. announced that it would donate $500,000 and host a telethon on its TV network to raise hurricane relief funds. The NBA and its players union also pledged a million dollars towards relief for the storm victims.
Perhaps Wade’s comments helped motivate others to follow his lead and open their checkbooks as well. As Kluwe would suggested, once you’re favorite athlete gets involved, it doesn’t take too long before the rest of the world gets on board.