Too often, society has been quick to denigrate the athlete as the "dumb jock," thinking little beyond their sport, and (if successful) money and the trappings that come with it. But athletes and coaches are starting to express themselves on political and social issues in a way that shows a level of maturity some political candidates could learn from.
Take the recent case of Green Bay Packers Quarterback Aaron Rodgers. One of the best players in the National Football League, and a household name and face due to his championship, MVP awards, and commercials, Rodgers happens to be in a mini-slump this season. On the heels of a three game losing streak, his concern on Sunday afternoon however went to a greater issue.
During the moment of silence for the victims of the Paris terror attack, some fan took advantage of the situation, yelling out some profane statement about Muslims. During his postgame press conference, Rodgers took the time to call out the fan for his odious behavior. And defensive star Clay Matthews Jr. from the Packers publicly had Rodgers' back, praising his character on the issue.
Sure, critics are going to slam Rodgers for focusing more on that than on the game of football. And doesn't he know it's cool to knock refugees, and to bad-mouth Muslims? There's little upside to Rodgers' career to make such a statement. This is why it's all the more important that he went against "what's trending now" to make it.
He's hardly the only one. Nobody in the University of Missouri's administration seemed to care or take seriously African American student warnings about threats, insults and verbal harassment until several members of the Missouri Tigers football team threatened to boycott the game with Brigham Young University, and their longtime successful coach (now set to retire due to health reasons) Gary Pinkel backed them up. Other SEC coaches backed Pinkel.
There's plenty of room to debate about whether the president needed to be fired, but with two active shooting threats against all blacks at the Missouri college campus that required law enforcement to intervene, there's certainly additional evidence that the complaints were legitimate.
We hear stories about African American basketball players like Derrick Rose and LeBron James wearing "I can't breathe" t-shirts to draw attention to the Eric Garner case, and several members of the St. Louis Rams holding their hands up coming out of the tunnel before their NFL game. Ken Reed, writing in The Huffington Post, documents these cases in his article.
Nor is this the sole realm of liberal-minded athletes. Several baseball players campaigned on a series of pro-life issues. I would get robo-calls with messages of my Atlanta Braves hero John Smoltz, advising me which conservative candidates he supports. Far from being insulted, I was proud to hear these players stand up for issues they feel passionate about, even when I don't agree with every issue they stand for.
Players who take liberal stands or conservative positions are often slammed for focusing on something other than sports. But these are not computerized players from my son's Madden NFL game or a baseball video game. They are human beings with opinions, who seem to be doing a better job of expressing them than some of the candidates running for office.
Earlier research of mine documents how many baseball players ran for public office after their careers, as Republicans or Democrats, with a better rate of success than the average politician. With more money in sports, that trend may have diminished for a while. But with the growing need for political leadership in this country, it's good to see these players taking a stand.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at email@example.com.