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Vince Thomas

From The Floor

Jim Brown (left) and Bill Russell were both outspoken civil rights activists in the '60s.
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Today's athletes choose different way of social activism

By Vincent Thomas, for
Posted Jun 30 2009 2:20PM

Last week, HBO premiered a new episode of Real Sports that featured a segment on legends Bill Russell and Jim Brown. The two septuagenarians are longtime friends that are not only two of the 10 greatest athletes in sports history, but, along with Jackie Robinson, two of the most socially important athletes in American history. Bryant Gumbel called them "citizen athletes."

The prime of their careers occurred in the 60s, during the Civil Rights Era, and they were both vocal, conspicuous presences -- activists. They used whatever fame, cachet and power they had to prod social change and they did so with conviction, hubris and dignity. You know they were ruffling feathers and "doing the right thing" because the FBI, at one time, was investigating them. That's a badge of honor for '60s activists. Brown and Russell were and remain admirable men.

During the segment, though, Gumbel asked the two men "where are the heirs to Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe?" The host asked them why the modern athlete hasn't followed in their activist footsteps.

Brown reverted back to what has become almost a platitude of his -- singling out Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods as disappointments when it comes to social responsibility. "I know they both know better," he says. "And I know they can both do better without hurting themselves." Brown's comment hints at the widely held idea that Tiger and MJ shy away from activism because it would alienate VIPs and stunt their earning potential. Brown is saying, however, "No it won't, so start speaking up with more than just your wallet."

But it was Russ' more staid thought that was somewhat of an epiphany. Russell said he knows that many of today's athletes have a social conscious, but that they see the "problem" differently (and by problem, I deduce that he means the continued struggles facing the black community and minorities, in general). That's exactly what's at work here.

We have no shortage of "citizen athletes." Slews have foundations, show up to Boys & Girls Clubs, run camps, send money to their high school alma maters, etc. NBA players cared before NBA Cares. But whereas we have hundreds of "citizen athletes," we don't have many "athlete activists." And many of the few activists are lesser-known players like, say, Etan Thomas.

Brown seems to want a more vocal and antagonistic activism from the top athletes -- the Kobes and LeBrons and McNabbs and Ryan Howards. That won't ever happen, because today's stars aren't built like Brown and Russell, because today's America is different. So they not only see the problem differently (as Russell noted), but they see their own responsibility differently.

Russell and Brown both made it clear that much of their activism was in response to the way they were personally treated. "I wanted my human dignity," said Brown, who revealed he was offered a scholarship to Syracuse on the condition that he didn't have any romantic/sexual contact with any white women on campus. "And I wanted to stand up and be known as that person that you can't put in a separate hotel when we travel down to Georgia ... And if that cost me anything it didn't matter, because I knew, as a young man, I couldn't give up my self. That's all I had."

Russell endured myriad affronts during his tenures at the University of San Francisco and the Celtics. Not every athlete took the activist route in the '60s (most famously, that crud of bojangler O.J. Simpson), but being forced to endure constant disrespect and emasculation bred activism. I don't want to ever diminish what men like Brown and Russell did to pave paths, but it wasn't ALL selflessness -- they said it themselves. But dig it: That is not the reality for today's athletes.

Today's athletes can eat at the finest restaurants, if they want to. They have the means to do so and there is now (thanks to the sacrifices of Brown's and Russell's peers) legislation that ensures that they can drink from the same water fountain as their white teammates and stay at the same hotels. Shaq and Tiger live in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in America. They don't and won't suffer the vandalism that Russell endured when he moved into an affluent Boston suburb in the '60s. It doesn't matter if Magic Johnson supported Hilary Clinton during the primaries (which he did). Barack Obama still became the first black U.S. President.

Personal hardship and pride fueled the activism of athletes in the Civil Rights Era, along with very blatant discrimination and racism. Activism was needed. It didn't matter if the athletes were famous and relatively wealthy; there was an inclusiveness to the struggle. Although activism is still needed, today's athletes are so far removed from the struggle that it becomes a total notion of sacrifice.

They do things differently, now. Jordan is trying to become the majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats and, both in Charlotte and Washington, he has hired black coaches and black executives. That's his way.

(Side note: I've always had a problem with MJ's choices for head coach. No disrespect to Darrell Walker or Sam Vincent, but they seem more like puppet-picks, to me. Let's see if MJ hires a Byron Scott when Larry Brown moves on or tries to lure Joe Dumars from Detroit to run the Bobcats. That would put him in a relationship with another strong-willed peer. Although I applaud MJ's support of diversity, I don't know how empowering he is.)

The Tiger Woods Foundation claims that "10 million young people have been touched by the Tiger Woods Foundation. Through character development programs, scholarships, grants, junior golf teams, and the Tiger Woods Learning Center, the Foundation is helping young people reach their goals." That's Tiger's way. Dozens of athletes publicly endorsed Obama. That was their way.

Brown, on the other hand, founded the Amer-I-Can program and has taken a very hands-on approach to changing and reshaping the lives of inner-city males, the forgotten. That's the civil rights-bred activism in him.

Sure, it would friggin' awesome if MJ put down the golf clubs and did the same. But we can't demand that from him. We can wish it, but not demand it. (Just for comedy's sake: can you see Tiger in Compton, preaching to wayward gang members? Cablanasian Tiger doesn't even necessarily truly get that he's "black.") Arthur Ashe was arrested in the '80s for participating in an anti-Apartheid rally outside of the South African embassy in D.C. Man, I would love for Shaq or T.O. to take the same risk for change. But it's not going to happen. They see the problem and their responsibilities differently than Ashe did. And it's finally hit me that I shouldn't judge the modern athlete for their lack of activism.

Sure I'd like them to be more vocal in dissent/support of certain social issues or join a protest and use their clout and fame in a more active way. But it's their prerogative. I'm cool with a dearth of athlete activists as long as we continue to see a glut of citizen athletes. It's not the '60s anymore. Giving back and staying involved is the new charge, the new humanity.

Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. His "From The Floor" column appears weekly on Vince invites you to email him at or follow him on twitter at

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