Sports Stars Beyond Caricature to Freedom of Expression

Photo Credit: PHOTO/ LeBronJames

When Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) began his peaceful assault upon the walls of racism in America he was frequently joined by artists, who gave encouragement and visibility even as some political supporters cautioned against what may have been considered intemperate or even provocative actions by the civil rights leader.  Muhammad Ali became an amplifying instrument for the angrier and subsequently more conciliatory voice of Malcolm X. Some of today’s artists and sports stars, black and white, see their duty to complete the eradication of institutionalized racism or at least that represented by killings in Ferguson, Staten Island, or as they perceive so many other police actions across the US. There has been a backlash from some fans and particularly police unions but defining the right to freedom of expression is perhaps more the issue in view of the attacks upon Charlie Hebdo and the response of government(s).  (See: “Is God More Insulted by Cartoons or Those Who Kill In God’s Name?”  Freedom of expression and the athletes go beyond caricature.

“I Have a Dream” & “I Can’t Breathe”

Speaking at a recent event, Harry Belafonte Jr. reminded how musicians and artists, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mahalia Jackson and “Peter, Paul & Mary” – Peter Yarrow, (Read more at “Fifty Years Ago: The Music of the March on Washington Rally“) became the cutting edge against the tide of caution leading up to the 1963 historic march upon Washington DC where MLK uttered the earth-shattering speech, “I Have a Dream.”  History can be seen as a historical tide, but America needed a tidal wave to wash away most forms of governmentally-sanctioned racial segregation. While the civil rights movement had by then many supporters in the US Congress and the JFK White House, the “Negroes” aspirations for equality were projected by many as a threat. Even in the White House, efforts at African-American  self-empowerment were seen by some as provocative.  History perhaps is coming full circle, half a century after MLK and before most of today’s athletes were born. Nonetheless, many of these sports stars had the opportunity to face “institutionalized racism” in their daily lives, at least before they became stars.

More than ever, we call upon athletes to be “role models.” Should role models be silent in the face of controversy? Can team and/or league management demand some conduct related to political activism and speech, freedom of expression? Should anyone have the right to interfere in the first place as political speech in word or action is one of our most precious rights in the US and most true free and democratic societies. Team branding is carefully orchestrated to attract fan and promoters/advertisers loyalty, but what if the athlete does not agree or even counters such with his/her political freedom of expression?

In the aftermath of the Ferguson demonstrations and debate regarding the culpability of a policeman who purportedly killed an unarmed black teen, four of the St. Louis Rams football players entered pre-game introduction ceremonies with their hands held aloft, now the symbol of many protesters. Similarly, many professional NBA basketball players opted to wear during warmups a T-shirt that read “I Can’t Breathe” following the choking and death of a black man by a police officer on Staten Island. The debate has gone beyond the borders of those two communities and indeed the borders of the US. Some have asked whether there is “institutionalized discrimination” in the US law enforcement community. There has been an apparent spike in the killings by police of unarmed persons including children and young adults, minority community members, (but also whites,) coinciding with the militarization of law enforcement in the last decade. The United Nations Human Rights Head has questioned the “disproportionate number of African Americans who die in encounters with police officers” and similarly those “in Prisons” and on “Death Row” in the US. (See: “Does the UN See ‘Institutionalized Discrimination’ in the Wake of Ferguson?“)

“Police in America Becoming Illegitimate”?

The St. Louis Police Officers Association reacted critically to the Rams’ players “statement” issuing its own press release expressing that it was “deeply disappointed with the members of the St. Louis Rams football team who chose to ignore the mountains of evidence released from the St. Louis County Grand Jury this week and engage in a display that police officers around the nation found tasteless, offensive and inflammatory.”  Some members of the Association went beyond the statement to demand that the NFL discipline the players involved and issue an apology for the presumed affront to the police. Undoubtedly there is a difference of opinion regarding what happened in the shooting, the handling of the grand jury as well as the football players’ demonstration/statement.  However, how is it that a police association whose members are sworn to uphold the law and Constitution without regard to personal view might somehow be more entitled to express its view on this matter more than players not obligated by any such duty? (Read Rolling Stone Magazine‘s “Police in America Becoming Illegitimate“)

Ironically, the NYC Police with encouragement of their union undertook their own “demonstration” by turning their back upon their Mayor DeBlasio during the funerals of slain colleagues. They had blamed the Mayor, the US Attorney General, and the President as providing incitement in the murders of such police officers. Whether I agree or not, I again would support the freedom of expression by such police officers even at the risk that it may have clouded the distinction between their official duty and views as union and/or individuals. If freedom of expression is to be sustained for all, then it must be protected for all including such that may be uncomfortable for a minority, some or an overwhelming majority of citizens, whether in the form of cartoon, police protest or athlete reacting to perceived injustice.

Do Teams/Leagues Employ Players as Props to make Political Statement?

Political statements have been compelled upon athletes at multiple levels by their employers. Displays of patriotism are orchestrated by management from the World Cup to the Olympics, beyond spontaneous expression of such by the athletes. The orchestration applies across borders with despotic and more democratic regimes engaged including Russia, China, Iran, Japan, Nigeria, Germany, etc.  In the US, most football uniforms are affixed with US flag on the helmet or above the heart. Same applies to baseball, basketball, etc., even to team players who are not American. Uniforms are frequently refashioned for some games with a military camouflage design intended to convey support for the US military. Professional and college teams hold special recognition/events before and during games to support the military and frequently beyond a more general statement of appreciation for their service. Those returning from combat duty are defined as “defending the freedoms of Americans” even if there may be ongoing political debate including in the US  Congress regarding the rationale for such war/conflict. (beyond support for soldiers there is at least an implicit and frequently explicit support for the mission.) Should players be allowed to distance themselves from such events and/or uniforms, Americans and non-Americans? When police as well firefighters are recognized as institutions by team and/or league management, will players be facilitated to nuance their support particularly if their personal experience is defined by “institutionalized discrimination?”

Subjective Criteria as to “Role Model ” & Political Statement?

Athletes have also been now subjected to a higher standard regarding off-the-field conduct, beyond perhaps the traditional bounds of performance enhancing substances and criminal conduct directly related to their job. The general rationale is that teams/leagues do not want their brand damaged by inappropriate behavior. However, the standard is no longer of criminality but whether players live up to some more rather than less ambiguous and shifting standard of a “role model.” Times and what is broadly acceptable have shifted dramatically – When I was a football player in the 1970’s, for example, gay players or even those expressing tolerance for LGBT may not have passed muster as “role models.” Beyond the recent Ray Rice domestic abuse saga or Michael Vick’s “dog fighting” crime, a player has faced suspension for using the “N word” while surreptitiously videoed at a rock concert. Even in states where recreational use of marijuana may have been legalized, a positive test may result in multiple game suspensions, fines and loss of pay. Personally, I’m no fan of Fidel Castro or his brand of authoritarian state. However, I found it more troubling that in the US a baseball manager risked fines, suspension and even being fired. Ozzie Guillen, the Latin American (Venezuela national) manager of the Florida Marlins had stated: “I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that [expletive] is still here.” (YAHOO Sports “Ozzie Guillen in Hot Water Over Fidel Castro Talk.) This was a politically incorrect and perhaps stupid as well as short-sighted statement, but does it become the standard by which to judge an athlete or on-field coach/manager?

If we want athletes to be role models, I’m not certain why then we encourage them to leave college for professional contracts before graduation or they can achieve some maturity.  All that seems to count is the on-the-field -talent of the young person, and perhaps their ability to sell seats and advertisements. Coaches and/or teams seek notoriety in their stars but only to the degree they define it as positive. (Muhammad Ali was defined as a traitor or role model depending on the commentator and particularly the time in his career and life.) Sport coaches in particular hate “distractions” unrelated to their players’ on-field performance. They demand teamwork and presumably an egalitarian perspective. On the other hand, their teams and leagues frequently seek to promote attendance, memorabilia sales, and media attention by highlighting the visibility of individual “star” players. During the Super Bowl, players can be fined for failing to be responsive to journalists.

A Good Teammate Respects Differences, and More …. ?

It was my fortune to witness and be a part of a progressive America in the 1970’s as southern universities began to admit black players to their athletic teams. At Tulane , we had an excellent nationally ranked football team, in significant part because the talents of black players made us a standout among many universities in the region. Diversity existed on several levels, from race to religion. Among players and coaches, we had Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and, Muslim (me) members. Some were more religious regularly attending the Fellowship of Christian Athletes gatherings on a regular basis while others preferred to spend their time at the local New Orleans drinking establishment with their teammates. A few sought to do both.

As a Muslim, I did not eat pork which was not so infrequently served to the players’ “training table.” It was a personal choice driven as much by my custom as religiosity, and when pork was served I did not eat the main meal but instead opted for more bread or vegetables or milk, or etc. On one such occasion two of my teammates noticed that I was not eating the main meal, and asked me why.  After I explained, the two, one a big redhead from Florida of Irish ancestry (Gerry Sheridan) and the other an African-American from Louisiana (Gene Forte) did not try to persuade me to alter my custom but immediately called the cook and asked him to prepare a main pork-free meal for me.

MLK Day was not celebrated back then, but today I feel a beneficiary of his legacy despite being white. Drawing a cartoon, wearing a T-shirt, turning your back in protest to your Mayor and boss or not eating pork are all part of our freedom of expression. A country and society can be seen by some as weakened by such differences of view at times apparently irreconcilable. But we are brought together by our respect of diversity, and indeed defense of such differences and tolerance. Good teammates can exhibit solidarity in many forms and accepting diversity and differences that make a coherent team.  My Tulane teammates had faced bigotry and challenges ingrained in society way before any of us had been born. They had helped set a standard for society as a whole when segregationist sentiment still dominated in many of their neighborhoods, churches and/or families. That single moment will never be forgotten by me, a spontaneous gesture by two young men had made America more accommodating to me and even more living up to its standards.

Peter, Paul & Mary (including our friend Peter Yarrow) perform “If I Had a Hammer” during the 1963 March on Washington led by MLK – Our words, artistic and/or athletic talent may be our most powerful tool rather than pick or sledgehammer to overcome the walls of oppression or division.



About the Author

Muhamed Sacirbey
Muhamed Sacirbey
Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey currently lectures on Digital-Diplomacy. "Mo" has benefited from a diverse career in investment banking & diplomacy, but his passion has been the new avenues of communication. He was Bosnia & Herzegovina's first Ambassador to the United Nations, Agent to the International Court of Justice, Foreign Minister & Signatory of the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court. He also played American football opting for a scholarship to Tulane University in New Orleans after being admitted to Harvard, oh well!!
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