I had to re-read the essay question multiple times. The first time, I didn’t fully process what the words said. The second time I had no idea what stance I would take. By the time I had read it a third time, I had wasted five of the precious 35 minutes I had to write a response to the PSAT prompt. The issue at hand was just too complex, too complicated, too nuanced. I was a sophomore in highschool trying to answer a question that few of those far my superior knew the answer to. Needless to say, it was a jumbled mess.
The question, though I don’t remember it word for word, read something like this: Do you believe that professional athletes have a duty to be exceptional citizens and role models? I answered in the affirmative, a conclusion I came to more from gut feeling than intellectual analysis — but one that I still firmly stand by today.
On July 13, when I watched the opening of the ESPY awards, my mind flashed back to that essay prompt. I watched as four of the most talented players in the NBA called for the violence and racial injustice to stop. I observed Carmelo Anthony, who I had never heard utter a word outside of post-game interviews, say emphatically that he could no longer “ignore the realities of the current state of America.”
Anthony passed the torch to Chris Paul, who listed countless athletes, including Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who, as he says “set a model for what athletes should stand for.” He then went on to say that the men on stage with him would be following in the footsteps of those that came before.
After Paul came Dwyane Wade, who called for the gun violence and racial justice, among other ongoing cruelties, to end. He said, powerfully, “Enough. Enough is enough. Now, as athletes, it’s on us to challenge each other to do even more than we already do in our communities.”
LeBron James, who had just pulled off arguably the greatest comeback in sports history, anchored the speech with a final call to action. James said all professional athletes must “educate [themselves], explore these issues, speak up, use [their] influence and renounce all violence.”
The speech was moving and forceful, but most notably it was important.
When young men and women become professional athletes, they do not intentionally sign up for a role that includes community leadership and activism. In most cases, those responsibilities are thrust upon them by their status and popularity. It’s easy to dodge this tacked on role — like O.J. Simpson, Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson did — because we as a society do not hold our athletes to the highest standard of being exemplary role models and humanitarians. But some, perhaps because they feel an innate higher calling or recognize the potential power at their fingertips, embrace it.
And those who do have a chance to truly change our country, and the world, for the better. Muhammed Ali was the greatest boxer ever, but he is perhaps equally remembered for his outspoken boycott of the Vietnam War and his advocacy for African American rights. Jim Brown, who is unequivocally one of the all-time best running backs in NFL history, became more influential for his role as a proponent of programs that supported African American businesses and formerly incarcerated young men than for any of his awe-inspiring runs — and there were a lot of them.
And while Michael Jordan, for example, will be remembered by basketball fans as the greatest player ever, Ali and Brown’s legacy will be taught in classrooms, to children who will hopefully learn that with greatness comes responsibility. And only the truly and unequivocally great can embrace with open arms the burden of that responsibility.
Ali and Brown, among others, used their influence and power to help address real issues that plagued, and still plague, our country. But they seemed to be born of another ilk — a breed of athlete that was destined for greater things. Since their day, there has seemed to be a distinct lack of those who reach beyond their sport and into the real world. Athletes, particularly African American men, have been mostly silent as America has spiraled into a cycle of racially-charged violence, exacerbating the already touchy relationship between the government and the governed.
But that trend has been bucked. James, Wade, Paul and Anthony have decided to embrace their roles as potential chieftains for change. And it’s about damn time. It is time for these men, and many others in similar positions, to use their power for good. It’s time for a new generation of Jim Brown’s and Muhammed Ali’s to rise up and be greater than themselves. Because when great athletes speak up, people listen.
And now, if I sat down with that essay prompt, I’d be ready to write a real response.
Sophie Goethals covers softball. Contact her at [email protected]