Commentary

Every month is awareness month

Athletes can do more with their public platform

Originally Published: October 1, 2009
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

More and more in the past several years, athletes have been talking very little and saying even less.

Before and after games and practice, we in the media are there, mikes and notepads at the ready, prepared to record comments that more often than not don't really answer the questions, from players we weren't necessarily aiming to talk to.

But off we trudge, feeding them into written stories or broadcast reports, forced mostly to draw our own conclusions, which, let's face it, is what most of us prefer doing anyway.

[+] EnlargeReferees
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesNFL officials sport pink ribbons in October 2008.
In Hollywood, they have all but given up the charade of legitimate interviews and have conceded to allowing actors, musicians and anyone else who fits the loose description of celebrity to set their own agendas and speak from their own platforms.

Almost always, we listen. To their movie plugs and brand pitches, their religious leanings and political beliefs. We listen because that's all they seem to be saying and, frankly, it's often of more consequence than anything else.

On Wednesday at Halas Hall, the media were reminded that the NFL will support Breast Cancer Awareness Month with a national screening campaign and an on-field presence at games that will include pink goalpost padding, pink caps for coaches and, for at least eight Bears players, everything from pink cleats, which quarterback Jay Cutler and tight end Greg Olsen will sport, to pink gloves and wristbands.

We learned that Olsen's mother and Charles Tillman's grandmother are breast cancer survivors; that the wives of Bears assistant coaches Dave Toub and Gill Byrd also were diagnosed with the disease, as was the wife of Greg Gabriel, the team's director of college scouting. Also, Robbie Gould's mother is a two-time survivor of other types of cancer.

Olsen and Toub had spoken of their experiences before. We have heard Tillman speak out after his infant daughter had a successful heart transplant, talking about the importance of organ donation as well as the miracle of the artificial heart.

"Anything you can do with the platform we have and the amount of eyes that are watching our games, the opportunities are endless," Olsen said.

It's great that the athletes seem to appreciate how much power they possess in the brief window of time in which many people are actually listening to what they say. As social media such as Facebook and Twitter have proliferated and athletes have grown bored with, suspicious of and generally irritated by the mainstream media, they have learned to leverage their platforms even further.

Surely, worthwhile causes such as organ donation have benefited from it. But when Tillman and others do not have causes or agendas to advance, there is a disconnect. Athletes generally don't want to open up to fans, do not want to share their personal experiences, rarely volunteer the obstacles they have overcome or the journeys they have made to get to this point, all of which would be similarly uplifting, inspirational and potentially beneficial to others.

Tillman talked about his daughter after reporters continued to ask questions about his absence from team practices and meetings in the summer of 2008.

"I knew at some point in time it would come out, so I was more than fine with speaking about it," he said. "I felt it was the hand I was dealt and I was going to make the best of it. And what better way than using my platform to try to get other people to be organ donors?"

[+] EnlargeBobby Jenks
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesWhite Sox closer Bobby Jenks observed Mother's Day with a dye job in 2008.
But he admitted that normally he and other athletes draw a line between themselves and what the public is allowed to know.

"I think mostly everyone in here and probably guys around the league [feel] that good game, bad game, talk about me as a player, whatever, but just leave my family and my personal life [out of it]," he said.

Even Olsen said he shies away from talking too much about his mother's experience.

"I don't talk about it until it's brought up," he said. "Not that I'm uncomfortable, I just don't go that route, trying to draw attention."

Bears tackle Anthony Adams acknowledged that athletes have "a great stage" and that he wouldn't hesitate to speak out "because a lot of people are watching and [we] can help [them] just saying, 'Hey, Anthony Adams is going through that same ordeal.'"

Bears' second-year corner Zack Bowman agreed.

"Whether it's for breast cancer or some other disease or disorder, whatever opportunity I get, I want to jump on it," he said, "because it's for a good cause and it makes those people happy when they see professional athletes do it."

No doubt. But it also would make people happy if these guys didn't wait for Breast Cancer Awareness Month to speak up.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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