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James, Bryant draw spotlight on and off the court in Beijing
by Marc Narducci / August 8, 2008

Lebron James and Kobe Bryant - Icon Sports Media LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are superstars competing on the world-wide stage of the Olympics. And for some observers, having James and Bryant help the U.S. capture the gold medal won’t be quite enough.

Bryant and James have suggested in the past that they would use their platform of competing at the Olympics in Beijing to denounce genocidal destruction by Sudan’s Khartoum government against the people in the Darfur region.

In March, Human Rights First, a non-profit, nonpartisan international human rights organization based in New York and Washington, D.C., released a report on the gruesome situation in Darfur. The reports stated that in the last half decade at least 200,000 have died and 2.5 million have been uprooted as Sudan has sought to stamp out a rebellion in Darfur by outfitting local proxy militias to do the job on the ground while Khartoum bombs from above.

And one of Sudan’s biggest allies happens to be China.

According to the Human Rights First Report, nine of out 10 barrels of oil that Sudan ships, goes to China. The report also stated that from 2003-2006 China had sold more than $55 million worth of small arms to Sudan. It also stated that since 2004, China has supplied an average of 90 percent of Khartoum’s small arms purchases each year.

For now, the LeBron James and Kobe Bryant of social activism is Ira Newble. In NBA terns, Newble is described as a journeyman, who has survived eight years in the league, but he would be a first-team member on anybody’s all-social issues squad.

A current free agent, Newble was alerted to the horrors of Darfur early in 2007 and felt so compelled to learn more that he visited the region last summer.

“I didn’t know what to expect at first and it completely changed my life and made me put my own life in perspective, just the pain and suffering and tragedy they were going through, it made me realize I myself and a lot of us here in America take everything and the life we have for granted,” Newble said in a phone interview.

Newble admitted to being shaken after hearing so many horror stories during his visit.

“I got accounts of women being raped, kids watching family members murdered and mutilated as young as age five and they draw pictures of these images,” he said. “Our kids at home are drawing pictures of cars, and rainbows and nice things and these youngsters are drawing pictures of soldiers attacking their families.”

The accounts he heard were simply horrifying.

“I spoke to women who were kidnapped and rapes, sometimes by 10 men, sometimes 20,” he said somberly. “No human being anywhere should go through anything like that.”

When Newble was with the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2006-2007 season, he sent a letter that was signed by 10 of his 12 teammates to Chinese officials expressing his concerns about the situation in Darfur.

James was one of the players not to sign the letter, saying he wanted to learn more about it. He later made public comments denouncing the situation.

Bryant has recorded a power public service announcement (PSA) for AidStillrequired.org. According to its website, Aidstillrequired.org is a non-profit humanitarian movement focused on rebuilding communities through sustainable solutions in the aftermath of natural disasters and human crises.

In the PSA, Bryant says in part, “In Darfur hundreds of thousands have been murdered, mutilated and families are torn apart. Please take a stance with us. We have the power to save lives, to restore lives…”

Newble has been a teammate of both James and Bryant and chose to mention the positive things that both have done concerning the situation in Darfur.

“Lebron didn’t sign (the letter) and when we spoke I respected the decision and he took his time and a few months ago he did come out and publicly acknowledged what was going on and he wanted to do something about it and take a stance,” Newble said. “Kobe did a PSA and it was a wonderful thing and that motivated other athletes.”

So Newble doesn’t want to single out the two biggest names, but he says that all athletes need to step up their game when it comes to speaking on social issues.

“Athletes are able to reach a wide audience and I think all athletes should voice their opinion,” Newble said. “Not just about Darfur but a lot of issues because we have the opportunity to reach people.”

In fairness, there are star athletes who carry the same social consequence as Newble on the subject of Darfur. A prime example is Tracy McGrady of the Houston Rockets, who has visited the region and is raising money and awareness of the situation.

“I can’t tell you how great it is the way Tracy has stepped it up,” Newble said.

As for Bryant and James, they are facing the same sort of criticism that Michael Jordan received while he was competing at the highest of levels in the NB A. Jordan wasn’t one to speak up on controversial issues.

And that brings up the age-old question – should athletes be expected to make a stand on social issues?

Some will suggest that athletes such as James and Bryant, who carry a large marketing portfolio, don’t want to incense advertisers by saying anything that could be perceived as controversial.

However, speaking out on genocide or other social evils should be appealing to many companies looking to market products.

“An athlete may lose a minor percent by speaking out, but overall they will gain much more respect and more endorsements to speak out on such an issue,” Newble said.

The easiest thing to do is to throw superstar athletes such as James and Bryant under the bus. Yet nobody knows what goes on in the minds of each individual, regardless of how famous they are. And it’s often not known what famous people do behind the scenes to help various causes.

We live in a world where blame is assigned with relative ease. Bryant and James aren’t the only high profile athletes competing in the Olympics, yet because of their fame, they will be singled out.

It’s dangerous to criticize somebody such as James and Bryant because anytime during the Olympics they can come out and make a strong statement on the Darfur.

If they don’t, it doesn’t make them bad people or even uncaring. It just wouldn’t put them in Ira Newble’s league, a place where all athletes should strive to compete.

Marc Narducci s a frequent contributor to HoopsHype.com

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