The Resurrection of the Black Athlete Activist

At the opening of the teaser trailer for next month's Star Wars film, an ominous voice intones: "There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?" Though referring to the mystical power of "the force" and the sci-fi universe created by George Lucas, those opening lines might very well have been written for an awakening of different sorts: the renewal of social and political activism by prominent African American athletes.

This awakening has been especially visible in the last week, with more than 50 black members of the University of Missouri's football team announcing that they would not "participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigned or was removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students' experiences."

Disappointed by a lack of university response in recent months to widespread complaints about racial discrimination and intimidation, these African American student-athletes used their clout as public figures to call attention to the plight of black students on their campus. And they succeeded; Wolfe resigned on Monday and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin announced that he would step down at the end of the academic year.

Although the most recent example of activist black athletes, the Missouri players were not alone. From the "Ferguson Five" of the NFL's St. Louis Rams -- who last fall held their hands up in a show of solidarity with the protesters -- to basketball players such as LeBron James, who have donned "I Can't Breathe" t-shirts in response to the death of Eric Garner in July 2014 -- black athletes have shown a willingness to wade into hot-button political and social issues.

Such activism is surprising; for the past 40 years, and for many of the decades prior to the 1960s, black athletes have largely avoided overt political activism. Although athletes such as running back Jim Brown, basketball star Bill Russell, tennis player Arthur Ashe, track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith and boxer Muhammad Ali were politically active in the 1960s and 1970s, most black athletes, and most African American leaders, were content to let performance on the field serve as a kind of political statement. By playing with and against white athletes, African American athletes in football, basketball, baseball, tennis and track showed the capacity of black people to be productive citizens and modeled an equal opportunity society in which whites and blacks worked together and competed on a "level playing field."

The arrival of free agency in the 1970s, and the increasing revenues brought into sports by television and sophisticated marketing, further deemphasized social activism. A new generation of black superstars, such as Michael Jordan, who was famously loyal to his shoe company, Nike, and his other endorsement partners, studiously avoided controversial topics that might alienate potential consumers. Although there were exceptions, the Jordan model for black athlete's public profile became the norm, and megastars like Tiger Woods followed his blueprint to great financial success.

And so it is even more surprising to see this new generation take up the activist gauntlet, and to see their willingness to engage with political issues. Using their celebrity and media presence, these athletes have spoken out on racial profiling, unwelcoming racial climates on university campuses, accusations of excessive force by the police and inequalities in the criminal justice system. Whatever one might think of the causes, this engagement with pressing social issues augurs a better future for the nation at large. An engaged citizenry is a vital component of our democracy, and a willingness to take a stand and engage in dialogue is a necessary precursor for a better future.

While Star Wars fans look forward to December for the latest installment of fantasy and the allegorical struggles of good and evil, there is a more compelling story set to unfold much sooner. Will black athletes -- and white athletes, for that matter -- continue to use their prominence in the public spotlight to campaign for issues of social justice? Or will the dark side of corporate pressures contain their voices and limit their active citizenship? The force of public adulation and media attention is with these athletes: the question is whether they continue to use it in 2016 and beyond.