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Thursday, February 15, 2007
Updated: February 20, 2:33 PM ET
King III: Pro athletes have a duty

By George J. Tanber
Special to ESPN.com

Martin Luther King III has a deft left-handed shot, is a Shaquille O'Neal fan, and roots for the Atlanta Falcons. The eldest son of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott King knows sports.

Martin Luther King III
Martin Luther King III
But, as you might expect, King's focus lies elsewhere. He served as a Fulton County [Ga.] commissioner and directed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization his father founded. He left the SCLC in 2004 to head the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change.

King, 49, is president of Realizing the Dream. The organization based in Atlanta sponsors non-violent training programs, youth leadership workshops and promotes economic development in impoverished communities. The latter has sent King on the road for more than a year seeking partners for his anti-poverty programs.

The work leaves little time for hoops, a sport he now plays infrequently. In his day, King was a fair player. Concerning his southpaw shot: "It gave me a small advantage."

For Black History Month, King weighs in on assorted sports issues -- and talks about what his father would think of today's African-American athletes.

What role did athletics play in the integration of America and what was the significance?

I think athletics played a major role in the integration of America. From Jack Johnson to Muhammad Ali to Wilma Rudolph, the Williams sisters, Arthur Ashe, Hakeem [Olajuwon], Magic [Johnson], Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, LeBron James, Bill Russell. There are so many. The list goes on and on. All of these individuals impacted athletics and integration. They changed the way sports were played and gave people an opportunity to look at black athletes as individuals. It helped break down the race barriers. [But] racism is still a factor. There is still a lot of work to do.

If your father were alive, what would his thoughts be about the progress African-Americans have made in athletics?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. andf family
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., holding his son, Martin III, as his daughter, Yolanda, and wife, Coretta, greet him at the airport upon his release from a Georgia State prison. King had been incarcerated for leading boycotts.
It's very difficult to say what he would think. He was certainly a sports fan. He played baseball and basketball, and he used to follow football. I think he would be happy to see the contributions blacks have made in sports. He would also be happy to see the recent occurrence of blacks in the front office of major sports and, finally, having two head coaches in the Super Bowl. All these things are significant.

What would disappoint him?

The outbursts you see, whether it's in hockey, or football, or basketball, or tennis. Professional athletes, in my opinion, have an obligation to conduct themselves in a positive way and maintain their sense of fair play and sportsmanship.

Young and talented African-American athletes sometimes place professional sports above other goals. Many don't make it and, as a result, are left with limited choices. What needs to happen for that mind-set to change?

I don't know if I have an answer to that. The majority of young people respond to what they see. Unfortunately, the media tends to provide a daily diet that is negative, emphasizing and glamorizing the accomplishments of African-Americans in sports and music, basically promoting material things. Some things should be emulated. Many should not. Most African-American athletes don't make it so they have to find a way to develop a craft. I would hope to see [successful professional] athletes develop programs to help the communities where these athletes live. We need to find ways to help uplift these communities.

What more should African-American sports heroes do for their communities, particularly disadvantaged African-American youths?

There are all kinds of foundations, but there needs to be more of a collective effort to bring about change in the communities. For instance, if there was a reading program sponsored by athletes, young people would be embracing reading because their heroes are talking about reading. Some athletes are doing things, like Warrick Dunn, Magic Johnson and Shaquille O'Neal. I don't know that we are aware of everything. I wish there was a way to promote the positive things that are happening. All of us need to do something, not just athletes.

Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown
Among the athletes King III most admires are Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali.
Name an African-American athlete, past or present, you admire and why.

One of them is Jim Brown. He has tried to work with gangs to help them transform their lives. He's very serious about making a difference in the community. Another is Muhammad Ali, for what he stood for. He took a strong stand, one the rest of society might not necessary take. I've always admired Evander Holyfield. He should not have been able to be a world champion. But because of his heart and hard work, he did.

Jim Brown said recently that the on-field antics of some African-American football players are disgraceful and perpetuate racist stereotypes. Agree or disagree and why?

I often am a believer in much of what Jim Brown says. He performed incredibly in the eight or nine years that he played. He made people proud in how he played the sport and conducted himself on the field. I agree with him. I can't think of a specific example but the antics [he refers to] does create a stereotypical attitude. It's unfortunate. Those kinds of things could be changed if all professional sports enterprises would consider some form of human relations or sensitivity training that might create a different attitude. It doesn't mean you can't celebrate. It's how you choose to do it.

Imagine you're a star athlete. Name the sport and your dream moment.

Basketball. Scoring a triple-double in an NBA game.

Your favorite sports moment, either as a player or as a fan.

Tony Dungy winning the Super Bowl. We had two African-American coaches, so it was difficult to decide who to root for. I went with Tony Dungy because of his style.

George J. Tanber contributes to ESPN.com. He can be reached at george.tanber@iscg.net.