Why Do Progressive Athletes Still Get All the Crap for Speaking Out?
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The Russell news came one day after President Obama’s dramatic announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s death. “Bin Laden Day” has the wrong ring to it; it connotes either solemnity or official celebration. “Bin Laden Night” isn’t only more accurate—it’s got an ambiguity to it that captures the confused frenzy of the evening. College students took to the streets, cheering about death; Twitter, where I spent most of my night, was an odd combination of meta-commentary, reflection, and typical right/left trolling. One thing’s for sure: whatever your chosen definition of “American,” this was an American moment. Jingoism and informed debate shared the same space, simply because the energy was so overwhelming, and the personal reactions so strong, that mostly it was about what that night meant to you.
Except, of course, for professional athletes. Sports are almost inherently conservative, in both their cultural underpinnings and their close ties to mounds of money and big business. Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall felt compelled to publicly apologize after using Twitter to question whether Osama really did it, or was really as evil as we had been told. Of course, that was after his comments—admittedly fringe-ish and misguided—started getting widespread media attention. Far more troubling is the case of Chris Douglas-Roberts, the Milwaukee Bucks swingman who simply asked whether all the money, war, and death had been worth it to get Osama. He also dared question whether all of it had been even pointed in the right direction. Standard-issue left-wing views. But CDR was almost immediately attacked. He stood his ground, fought back, and even refused to mitigate his stance in the next day.
Douglas-Roberts has a reputation for speaking his mind, but has hardly been considered “political” or an “activist” in the past. He’s not big man Etan Thomas, known for his poetry slams, dreadlocks, and on-call lefty opinions. It’s a lot more like the case of Josh Howard, currently with the Washington Wizards. In the summer of 2008, Howard, then with the Dallas Mavericks, told a camera phone at a charity softball game that he “didn’t celebrate that shit” during the national anthem. Immediately, he became a hot-button topic. Having a certain kind of political consciousness is, for professional athletes, a good way to earn a bad reputation. Right-wing baseball mouthpiece Curt Schilling, whose views were of the FOX News variety, were allowed to pop off without incident. For the last few weeks, Orioles outfielder Luke Scott has gotten to expound on his birther theories without much blowback.
Bill Russell may be getting his statue, because it’s the right thing for Boston and the Celtics to do. They have no excuses left, and frankly, it makes both parties look bad if they don’t. But that statue shouldn’t just be about making things right—it should symbolize the contributions he made to sports writ large. Judging from this week, we’ve still got a long way to go before that’s going to happen.