Players getting in the game

Players getting in the game

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Players getting in the game

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I’m afraid I’m the guy who defined athletes’ political activism through the words of Michael Jordan.

It was some 20 or so years ago when I was the beat writer covering the Chicago Bulls before their championship run. One of the great charms of Jordan as the guy’s guy he really most is – and I always felt perhaps the biggest reason for his amazing success – was his constant, almost relentless pursuit to make everything a contest, including conversation.

There’s rarely been anyone better at getting the last word, and making it a good one.  Jordan wanted to win the conversations, too.

Politics never has been a big priority with professional athletes, and particularly not among team athletes.

There have always been exceptions, like Bill Walton, who was something of campus activist while at UCLA. Walton once even went to deliver a letter to Richard Nixon asking him to resign. And there was Roosevelt Grier, the former NFL lineman, who was at Robert Kennedy‘s side when he was assassinated. Barack Obama has drawn comparisons to the Kennedys and Bobby had several athletes with him at times, including Lamar Lundy and Deacon Jones from the NFL.

But mostly athletes, if they took sides, were Republicans based on their exceptional earnings and desire to keep corporate tax rates lower – something generally associated with the GOP. You could hold the Republican national convention in the locker room at a PGA golf tournament and have trouble finding anyone as liberal as John McCain.

In the late 80s, one of the senators from North Carolina, Jordan’s home state, was Jesse Helms, in my opinion a very bad man and whom I believed to, let’s say, have racial views that didn’t seem egalitarian. Jordan loved to debate, no matter the topic, and even on issues you would never hear him discuss, he’d have strong opinions. So I was making my case for Harvey Gantt, the black mayor of Charlotte. I said Jordan should be working for him

Jordan knew him and liked him, and his politics, which Jordan didn’t discuss often, skewed much more toward Gantt.

But there was this restraint holding him back, one that is regularly counseled to the greatest of the athletes, meaning the ones who are the most marketable: Don’t offend anyone.

And Jordan truly was the first in that field.

Sure, big-name athletes always have endorsed products. Wheaties boxes have features athletes for decades. I would buy anything I could that had Mickey Mantle‘s picture on it.

But in his groundbreaking shoe deal with Nike, Jordan became the first true athletic corporate figure.

So as I droned on and on about the pernicious Helms, Jordan eyed me and with a twinkle in his eyes, offered: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

I did a few of those Ralph Kramden “hom-a-na, hom-a-nas,” and fell silent.

Swish!

Jordan’s imprint is on virtually every style change in the NBA in the last 20 years, from longer uniform shorts to shaved head.

And despite an occasional condemnation from an activist like Jim Brown, politics as well.

Heck, Charles Barkley for years used to ruminate about running for governor of Alabama, though he’d vacillate between which party he’d represent.

But this year, with Obama running for president, the first black man to represent a major political party for president in the U.S., it appears that in record numbers professional athletes are taking an active role in support for the Democratic ticket, which probably is most representative of their history.

While professional athletes historically have been Republican-leaning or apolitical because of their economic levels, the huge majority, other than golfers and tennis players, come from poor or modest backgrounds which align with the Democratic party platform.

Generally counseled to avoid political discussion, this year’s extraordinary American presidential contest has shaken many from their neutrality.

Among those who have been active in the Obama effort have included former great centers Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Rookie (again) Portland center Greg Oden announced on his blog his support for Obama and afterward Obama gave Oden a phone call and, according to Oden, Obama said the Trail Blazers looked strong this season with the Oden/LaMarcus Aldridge pairing.

Hey, the Democrats keep saying they needed to get more to the center. Is this what they meant?

Others who have been involved with the Obama effort include the Suns’ Grant Hill, Atlanta’s Marvin Williams, Barkley, the Knicks’ Stephon Marbury and the Clippers’ Baron Davis. Though it’s not just the Democrats getting support as the Kings’ Spencer Hawes has been an active worker for Republican candidates.

Davis has hosted events for Obama in California and declared after Obama’s acceptance speech Davis felt like “going out to Venice Beach to register people.”

For anyone who’s even been there, “people” would be a loose term.

Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod said he was at an event with Davis and was impressed by Davis’ commitment and said the campaign has been pleased with the show of support in the usually neutral athletic community.

“A number of these athletes are deeply involved in their communities and they see an awful lot of need,” said Axelrod. “Obama is a guy who inspires a sense of both involvement and possibilities for solving these problems and they respond to that.

“From a generational standpoint athletes relate to him,” Axelrod added. “There’s a feeling among some people that all athletes are selfish and disinterested, but it’s not true. There are so many who are involved in the community, give of their ti me and money, like tremendous efforts after Hurricane Katrina, and they see Obama as someone who can inspire change.”

And, by the way, yes, Jordan has been a contributor to the campaign.

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