How much obligation do athletes/coaches have to be forces for social change?
Do we, the sports-watching public, want to see political gestures from our athletes?
What is an appropriate political gesture vs. an inappropriate political gesture?
We often hear about athletes forming charities, reading in elementary schools, visiting hospitals, etc., but rarely see one doing something publicly on the playing field to make a political statement or raise awareness for a cause.
William Rhoden explores this issue in his book Forty Million Dollar Slaves. His thesis is that athletes stay quiet because of the big fat paychecks coming from their bosses, much the same way slaves kept quiet in order to avoid punishments back in the Southern cotton fields. Rhoden specifically points to Michael Jordan as someone who avoided being controversial throughout his career, despite the power and attention he possessed, because he benefited financially by doing so.
I have not heard one critical word about Hunter's gesture because it is so purely selfless and for such a noble cause. What if, however, Hunter went shoeless to raise awareness about the paltry minimum wage? What if Hunter left the game during the 2nd half to protest late-term abortions? What if Hunter ordered his team to forfeit games until troops were brought home from Iraq? It is easy to support a social/political agenda that is safe like shoes for kids, but what about one that is less safe and more controversial?
Of course, there are several historical examples that demonstrate what happens when athletes make overt political gestures during sporting events/ceremonies. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were kicked out of the Olympic Village and largely panned for their racism protest at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf famously refused to stand during the national anthem because its "history of tyranny" violated his Muslim beliefs. He was jeered by NBA fans and criticized for his actions. Carlos Delgado was booed for his decision to sit during the playing of "God Bless America" in protest of the Iraq War.
These are all largely the same actions Coach Hunter is taking tonight, but the causes in these respective situations were more divisive.
With the NBA All-Star game coming to New Orleans this season, what would happen if the players vowed to skip the game unless all Katrina areas of the city were addressed? What would the public reaction be in such a situation? Do athletes have any obligation whatsoever to use their enormous clout in matters similar to the way Coach Hunter is bringing attention to the plight of shoeless African children?
Let's face it - if Hunter is raising this much attention at IUPUI, how much attention could a Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant or David Beckham garner for a similar cause? What if Woods decided to play The Master's with a pink golf ball to raise money for breast cancer? Would it be appropriate? Would we be willing to live in a political sports culture for the sake of hungry Africans, dying AIDS patients and battered women or do we want to keep the separation of sports and politics.
I have to believe there are athletes and coaches across the country today thinking, "If he can do something like that for shoeless Africans, what could I do to help someone else?"
While I applaud Coach Hunter's beautiful gesture, I wonder whether it is opening a Pandora's box of public political statements from professional and amateur athletes across the country and wonder what the reaction will be if it occurs.