Obama inspires black athletes to greater social awareness   

Updated: November 13, 2008, 1:29 PM ET

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I'm not a fan of people taking a stand when it's convenient.

I may have disagreed with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf's reasons for refusing to stand for the national anthem, but I deeply admired his resolve and courage. His beliefs probably cost him his livelihood, and I doubt many people have the nerve to sacrifice a lucrative NBA career to prove a point.

So I could hardly criticize Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall for nearly incurring a game-changing penalty against the Browns because he wanted to commemorate Barack Obama's historic presidential victory with a special end zone celebration.

Brandon Marshall

AP Photo/Mark Duncan

Brandon Marshall considered evoking Tommie Smith and John Carlos to show his support for Barack Obama.

If Marshall's teammate Brandon Stokley hadn't stopped Marshall from successfully imitating the raised gloved fists of former Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith in the end zone, I fear Marshall would have drawn relentless criticism and his actions would have been misinterpreted as selfish. But I would much rather see a wide receiver attempt to capture a moment in history instead of breaking out into a "Riverdance."

Still, we can't miss the larger meaning behind Marshall's almost-celebration. It's very clear that this presidential election has been a major turning point for black athletes. Pre-Obama, a lot of black athletes seemed uninterested, unwilling or afraid to express their political beliefs.

But I have been impressed and astounded by the number of black athletes who, in the name of Obama, decided to break free from the conventional notion that politics should be kept out of sports.

Having a president that looks like them seems to have inspired black athletes to be more vocal, and sparked a sense of solidarity that hasn't been seen since the civil rights movement.

Obviously, Obama's impact goes beyond just black athletes. He received more than 66 million votes, which means folks of every color saw him as an inspiration. But it was difficult not to notice how Obama's rise to the White House struck an emotional chord with African-Americans -- especially in the sports world.

After Obama won, several black athletes opened up about what seeing a black man in the White House means to them personally -- from Donovan McNabb to the Williams sisters to Tiger Woods.

Their viewpoints were insightful and moving and provided the proper perspective on such a momentous event in world history. We got to see the world through their eyes, instead of through their publicists and shoe reps.

Some went beyond expressing vocal support for Obama. Rasheed Wallace wore an Obama T-shirt to the Pistons game Friday. In fact, Wallace wanted the entire Pistons team to wear Obama T-shirts -- to hell with the NBA dress code. Not all of his teammates did, but a willingness to organize for a common cause is something black athletes had gotten away from.

"It goes back to the civil rights movement, where you had a powwow among [people] like Kareem, James Brown and Muhammad Ali," Wallace said. "It's not as political as it was then, but you definitely have to show your support."

I'm sure there were some people who were either annoyed or unaffected by the sports world's infatuation with Obama, because many of them subscribe to the belief that multimillionaires don't deserve to have political opinions. They're just as affected as the rest of us by the dire problems facing this nation, and their bank accounts shouldn't exclude them from expressing awareness.

While not every athlete can be as eloquent as Franklin Roosevelt, we seem to have forgotten how many athletes incited world change by taking a political stand.

If Ali had not spoken out against the Vietnam War, how many more would have stayed silent? The controversial stance on the medal stand by Smith and Carlos made the world acknowledge the mistreatment African-Americans endured in their own country. Think about how Joe Louis' defeat of Max Schmeling in 1938 brought this nation together or how Arthur Ashe's courageous battle against AIDS helped defy stereotypes that it was just a gay man's disease.

For far too long, black athletes have been told to just shut up and play ball. Certainly, there is a time and place for everything, and given the way the media and fans can vilify outspoken athletes, I can't blame a lot of them for choosing to be voiceless.

But maybe an Obama administration means the end of the "Republicans buy shoes, too" era ushered in by Michael Jordan, who gave black athletes the blueprint for how to stay apolitical for commercial reasons.

I considered it a major victory when the usually neutral LeBron James contributed $20,000 to Obama's campaign and participated in a voter-registration rally with pal Jay-Z. This was the same LeBron James who initially declined to sign a petition criticizing the Chinese government for its role in oppressing the people of Darfur. James waited a year before speaking up, so it was encouraging that he didn't hold his tongue regarding the next president of the United States.

I'm hoping black athletes have become sick of endless whirls on the conveyor belt, a syndrome New York Times columnist Bill Rhoden wrote about in his thought-provoking book "Forty Million Dollar Slaves." The conveyor belt is a metaphor for how the steady stream of money and fame has deadened the social consciousness of many black athletes.

"Even with the younger guys on the team, they started understanding how impactful this election was going to be and what the issues were," said Celtics guard Ray Allen. "Most of the veterans let the young fellas know that this is impactful on you. It affects the people around you because you may have a Republican paycheck, but the people around you have Democratic status. So you have to make decisions and have a voice. When you vote, what are you voting for? What do you stand for?"

If the Obama effect means more black athletes will feel compelled to become more politically active, then we should see it as an overwhelming, overdue positive. It doesn't matter whether you voted for John McCain or Obama; nobody should want a society that values staying loyal to the bottom line over standing up for your beliefs. Athletes are in a special position to be heard, and we owe it to them to listen.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com


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