Commentary

When athletes take a stand

The latest cases of athletes weighing in on the social and political scene

Updated: April 17, 2012, 3:31 PM ET
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Now that the Trayvon Martin story has added another chapter with second-degree murder charges filed against George Zimmerman, I wonder if the Miami Heat will continue to weigh in with their opinions.

The Heat already had plenty of issues -- both external and self-created -- confronting them before they stepped into the whirlpool of the Martin case by donning hoodies for a striking photograph in a show of support for Martin and his family. It was an eloquent statement, but one that puts the Heat in a different realm.

This story is not as simple as pausing to ensure another slain African-American is not brushed aside. By the time this saga ends, it will be about race, gun control, self-defense legislation and whether justice should be handled by public sentiment or administrative license. That creates the potential for an array of "peripheral opponents" for the Heat to contend with, to use Pat Riley's term.

Last week, Dwyane Wade doubled down by saying there should be greater compensation for players who participate in the Olympics, though he later changed his mind. This is not a new perspective; before Wade, Ray Allen as well as the members of the 1999 Ryder Cup team expressed a similar sentiment. But the Heat and the Olympics in 2012 are much bigger than golf and the Ryder Cup in 1999. So that meant more statements, more explanations, less focus on playing basketball.

Maybe it's coincidence, but I find it interesting that the Miami Heat had a pedestrian 6-6 record in their first dozen games after they wore the hoodies in that picture taken in a Detroit-area hotel.

Time and again we've seen that expressing opinions about the world outside of sports isn't conducive to succeeding in the sports world. On a smaller scale, that can involve any involvement in outside matters. I've heard Olympians apologize for being unresponsive to family members while training, and I'll never forget Pete Sampras saying he couldn't even think about being well-rounded while he was obsessed with being the No. 1 tennis player in the world.

At its most extreme: Muhummad Ali wasn't allowed to box for three years in the midst of his athletic prime because of his refusal to serve in the U.S. armed forces during the Vietnam War. And it's been 40 years since we've seen anyone package candor with success to Ali's degree.

And if the Heat need any reminder, they need only drive over to Ozzie Guillen's place and have a long discussion with the recently suspended Marlins manager. As many times as his mouth has gotten him in trouble, he obviously is not one who quickly learns from his mistakes. But he did offer this lesson in the midst of his hour-long apology for his "I love Fidel Castro" remarks: "When you [are] a sport man, you should not be involved in politics."

Speaking on and participating in the political process is the greatest American privilege, and just because a person wears a jersey to work it doesn't mean he forfeits that right. However, it takes true conviction to express an opinion when you know it won't be popular … and sports figures are in the business of being popular. They make their money by people buying tickets and watching their games on TV and purchasing the products they endorse. That leaves little leeway for alienating the fan base. Philosophically, the Marlins might support Guillen's right to his opinions. Economically, they might reach a point where they can no longer afford to do so if Miami residents don't want to forgive Guillen.

For as much as we want our public figures to speak out on public affairs, there's usually more risk than reward. If we're more likely to punish than praise them, what's in it for them?

Sports stars have a stage, but they don't really have a forum. Despite their constant presence in the media, they're afforded little opportunity for depth. Talking to groups of reporters in crowded hallways or overheated locker rooms doesn't allow for reasonable discussion or thoughtful follow-up questions. Yes, there's the unfiltered world of social media, but no matter how many Twitter followers a person has, it's impossible to convey full meaning and context in a 140-character message.

Even old-school media often don't have the time and resources to flesh out the issues anymore. Guillen's Castro quotes were sprinkled into a small Time magazine story that also tried to give a summary of the Marlins' history, their stature in South Florida and the political controversy involved in the building of their new stadium -- all in about one page's worth of text. There's no explanation for how Guillen even arrived at the topic of Castro.

I learned my lesson during the 2010 NBA playoffs, when I asked Phil Jackson what he thought about Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver having his team wear its "Los Suns" jerseys to protest an Arizona statute that would require immigrants to carry proof of citizenship at all times and grant law officers greater leeway to demand such documentation. Jackson said he thought the Arizona bill had merit and that basketball teams should not be involved in politics. I was surprised that the liberal-leaning Jackson aligned with conservatives on the issue, and that a man who once wore a Bill Bradley campaign button on his suit during a nationally televised game would oppose mixing sports and politics.

It was even more surprising that Jackson drew protestors to Staples Center, and caught enough flak that he felt compelled to issue a statement clarifying his remarks and recusing himself from the debate.

It wasn't my intention to trap Jackson or set him up for a backlash. He had always offered opinions on a variety of topics, turning his pregame sessions with the media into the most enlightening 10 minutes in the NBA, and I was genuinely curious to hear what he thought about this subject. In retrospect, asking him about it in a crowded room 90 minutes before a playoff game wasn't the time or place to find out. Yet that's the byproduct of a media culture that constantly wants answers to our questions on our terms to meet our deadlines.

I was deeply moved by the Heat's hoodie picture and considered it the most socially significant sports photo since John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their black-gloved fists on the medal stand in the 1968 Olympics. I respect any sports figures that are willing to think beyond their own locker room and address the issues of society at large.

But as long as our society considers shouting down to be a valid counterargument, and as long as we continue to place the won-lost record above all other measures of a sporting man, I'll also respect athletes who keep their opinions to themselves.

While sports figures might have the freedom to express themselves, in reality they're not truly at liberty to do so.