Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Athletes and entertainers as political voices

There are some who would vilify entertainers and professional athletes for speaking about politics and criticizing the powers that be. While many in the sports and entertainment industry are inherently illogical (Sean Penn, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, and Michael Moore immediately come to mind) some are exceedingly intelligent and well versed people. Mohamed Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title because of his refusal to enter the draft during the Vietnam war but this does not belie the fact that he was one of the most visible and eloquent figures of the civil rights struggle of the 1960’s. Others such as Jim Brown and Bill Russell also were dignified voices in the most tumultuous period of the twentieth century. At a time when this country was searching for an identity and dealing with the most divisive military action since the Civil War these renowned athletes along with musicians like Arlo Guthrie and actors like Sidney Poitier gave face to a ground swell of public outrage at an unjustifiable war and support for the black civil rights movement.

Some of the most influential political figures of the last quarter century have backgrounds in the sorts and entertainment field.

Republican Jack Kemp played football with the Buffalo Bills for thirteen years, winning back-to-back AFL championships in ’64 & ’65 earning league MVP honors and went on to a distinguished career in Congress. Kemp narrowly lost the 1988 republican presidential nomination to George Bush Sr. and was Bob Dole’s running mate in 1996.

Congressman J.C. Watts was one of the best option quarterbacks in college football history (for my money though the two best option QB’s I ever saw were Jamail Halloway, also a Sooner, and Colorado’s Darian Hagan), earning Orange Bowl MVP honors twice and served as one of the only high profile African-American Republicans from 1994 until 2003.

Former Democratic Senator Bill Bradley, who just happens to be a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, was one of the most influential politicians of his time. The Princeton grad and Rhodes Scholar lost the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination to former VP Al Gore after serving as senator for nearly two decades.

Byron “Whizzer” White who starred at the University of Colorado was one of the most prominent Supreme Court justices in U.S. history. White, who finished second in the very first Heisman Trophy balloting, led 400 U.S. Marshals into Selma, Alabama at the bequest of then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in May of 1961 to protect against violence during the civil rights movement.

Ronald Reagan was one of the most famous actors of his generation and is generally regarded as one of the four best presidents in American history. Elected governor of California in 1966, Reagan parlayed his fame into one of the most storied political careers in U.S. history, soundly beating incumbent Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election. Reagan’s influence is undeniable as he will be remembered along side John F. Kennedy as the most beloved presidents of the twentieth century.

The list goes on: Sonny Bono, Fred Grandy, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gerald Ford, Jesse Ventura, Clint Eastwood, Mario Cuomo, Steve Largent, etc.

Before we dismiss the opinions and actions of those from the sports and entertainment industry let’s step back and realize we might be missing bits of real wisdom.

Former Boston Celtic legend and Hall of Famer Bill Russell said it best. “You're not going to reduce me to an entertainer. I'm a man who stands up for what I believe in and you're going to respect me for it…I speak my mind because biting my tongue would make my pride bleed.”