BY Art Thiel 07:57PM 12/13/2014

Thiel: Social activism a tough call for Seahawks

Protests around the deaths of unarmed black men by police have drawn pro sports athletes into the storm. Should they speak, or keep opinions to themselves?

Some of the spoils of success are easy for Richard Sherman; some are harder. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

Advocates of pro athletes using their platforms to advance social causes are thrilled to see an awakening of conscience nationally regarding the deaths of young black men at the hands of police in dubious circumstances. The symbolism of their stances can be important.

It is also asking a lot.

It is instructive to recall the words of the best sports-marketing pitchman of all, Michael Jordan. When notorious race-baiting Sen. Jesse Helms (R-Klan) in 1990 was running for his fifth term in Congress against an African-American candidate, Harvey Gantt, Jordan, aligning with his role as Nike shoe salesman rather than advocate for political change in his native North Carolina, avoided taking sides.

“Republicans,” he was reported to have told a friend, “buy shoes too.”

Gantt lost the race, and again in 1996. Jordan lost too, by never shaking the apolitical tag until at least 2012, when he helped with a $20,000-a-plate fundraiser for President Obama. Not exactly a provocative position for an African-American entrepreneur. Jordan almost always confines his public provocations to the basketball court.

Then again,”lost” is a relative term. Partly by avoiding alienating any constituency with his political/social views, he became the wealthiest athlete in U.S. sports history largely via his endorsements. He is rich enough to be owner of the NBA Charlotte Bobcats, who at 6-16 are again miserable, as has often been the case in his tenure. But that’s another column.

Jordan has never risked stepping forward in matters beyond sports, as have other prominent African-American athletes such as Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe and most importantly, Muhammad Ali. Frankly, in a time of finely crafted, lucrative media deals, it just doesn’t pay.

That is is often the case with honesty in pursuit of truth.

But Jordan’s profile is practically bulletproof. That is not the case for 99 percent of athletes on major pro sports team rosters.

Here’s what any agent worth his diamond-studded cufflinks is going to tell a typical NFL player: “Look, the average length of a career is around three years. You think you’ll play 17 years, like Charles Woodson, but there’s a whole lot more one-year guys than 17-year guys. Your window for earning big money is incredibly small, and you’ll likely never do as well for the rest of your life.

“If you want to publicly support a controversial cause because it is truly important to you, good for you. Just know that many advertisers, many fans and many future employers don’t look for trouble.”

Chances are improving that there are more companies today willing to take risks with opinionated athletes as long as they stay away from civil and criminal misbehavior. Charles Barkley doesn’t seem to have any trouble showing up in about half the TV commercials in America today.

Locally, Beacon Plumbing can’t get enough of Marshawn Lynch telling the world its shop “will definitely clear those clogged drains.” Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman are on TV more than screen dust. But as the clamor grows following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, so does the urgency for statements among athletes.

The subject of social activism came up this week at Seahawks HQ. Even though Sunday is the most anticipated game of the season against the listing dreadnought 49ers, it’s getting harder to ignore the shouting that has gone global, even as it intrudes upon the games that some fans think should stay detached from the world and its ills.

Sherman, while offering an eloquent rationale for speaking up, didn’t sound as if he would make an observable demonstration.

“It’s something that everybody has their own choice to make,” he said. “It’s our duty as a nation to come together in these times to recognize it. I don’t know how much one individual gesture, or even a team or a lot of guys making gestures, that are very respectable and send out a message.

“I think that being together and being great role models as players is our duty. It’s the thing we can do. Not going out there and doing things that aren’t reputable. I think the guys that are making a stand are admirable.”

But will Sherman risk potential alienation?

“I feel like every time I make a personal statement, they think I’m being an individual and trying to bring attention to myself,” he said. “I think the best thing we can make as players is to be great role models.”

That would be a no.

Russell Wilson was a little more direct, but also fell back to the idea of role model as sufficient.

“Yes, I think if you have the opportunity to make a certain stand, you should,” he said. “As long as it doesn’t harm or disrespect anyone, I think it’s definitely something that can make a difference. A lot of people look up to us and a lot of people are inspired by us and what we can do and by the influence that we can have.

“Where my focus is all the time (is) just try to do the right thing, try to lead the right way and try to be a great role model for kids and for people in general. That’s why I did the whole ‘Why not you, pass the peace’ . . . it’s what can I do personally to fix certain situations.”

Wilson’s aim for his Why Not You? foundation was to raise awareness and funds for victims of domestic violence. But there’s no controversy with helping victims. The controversy is in prevention, which can mean some tough dialogue about DV with teammates, all NFL players as well as men everywhere. Demanding accountability for actions can make some people very uncomfortable, especially police, whose tactics are the object of protestors’ vitriol.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, a San Francisco native who grew up in the 1960s and has a much more experienced perspective, was sympathetic to the principles.

“The fact that there is a call out around the country is totally in order,” he said. “I think it’s totally in order — people have strong feelings about what’s going on, very well grounded feelings. Everybody wants to see change.

“Our guys are pretty outspoken guys. I trust that they speak on behalf of the feelings in their heart. They’ll make whatever decisions that they need to make, and if we need to consult on that, we will.”

Pressure is on in some quarters for athletes to stick their necks out, no matter the risks. But there looms a parallel question: Can young athletes fully immersed in the beginning of their pro careers be expected to be sufficiently knowledgeable on complicated subjects to provide an informed opinion? Or is what counts merely feelings?

Here’s one way for athletes to navigate the storm:

If you feel it, learn about it. Then, when asked, be as smart as you are honest. And if that scares people from giving you money, there will be many more who respect the courage of  your convictions.


  • jafabian

    Richard is controversial enough as it is. He’s most likely keeping his Foundation (and endorsements) in mind by staying clear of Michael Brown and Eric Garner sides. Russell Wilson most likely has similar reasons as well as most of the other Seahawks. Plus they’ve had enough controversies with Wilson’s divorce, Percy Harvin’s departure and Marshawn Lynch’s media boycott. They’ve been able to move forward from all that, why rock the boat and possibly divide the locker room again when they’re on a playoff push?

    Plus these cases are ongoing. As much as my thoughts and prayers are with the Brown and Garner families there’s still an ongoing investigation going on. Sports allow us to momentarily forget our troubles.

    • art thiel

      Forgetting our troubles is a nice aspiration, but awareness is a higher aspiration. Sports has often been where young people learn how life works — or doesn’t work — in all its harshness.

  • Kirkland

    It’s the “shut up and sing” trap celebrities fall into, and what the “hands-up” Rams receivers fell into. People want them to use their celebrity to spotlight a cause or viewpoint, yet when some do they get the Dixie Chicks treatment and boycotts. (Maybe the only celeb who has Barkley-like criticism resistance is Neil Young; try telling him to “shut up and sing”.)

    Then again, social consciousness is different for different people. I read about Jim Brown challenging (pre-scandal) Tiger Woods to be more socially active, due to his high profile as a minority golfer. Tiger responded, “I’m socially active every day with my charitable foundation,” and he had a valid point.

    • ReebHerb

      People wanted Tiger to be black when he is half Asian, quarter black, and quarter Native American. The ole ‘one drop’ concept is racist to the max.

      • art thiel

        I don’t think public desires regarding Woods’ racial makeup should influence his decision whether to speak out.

    • art thiel

      That’s why I encourage athletes/celebs to be well-informed on subjects before going public. They risk being being worse than silent when they are made fools.

  • Effzee

    It is important for athletes to speak up about social things. They are the fastest, strongest, toughest, most physically gifted and admirable members of our society. Many times, they are also very bright. Think of the sheer amount of money generated by peoples’ passion for their sports teams. So, when athletes remain silent on these things, it is kind of like they are taking a bunch of “Hush Money” that they will just funnel back into the same white-owned corporations that are largely responsible for the dynamics in our society sucking as they do. If a person is bothered by athletes who have opinions on social matters, then they should damn well be outraged by sports leagues using their platform on national television to be complete shills for the military industrial complex and blind nationalism. Pat Tillman, anyone?

    • art thiel

      Glad you made the point about Tillman. One of the most disgraceful manipulations of public sentiment in U.S. history.

  • ReebHerb

    Careful, careful. Remember Bernie Bickerstaff going ballistic when the car his underaged daughter was riding in before the crack of dawn was pulled over for a DWB (driving while black)?

    The anger and indignation from the black community quickly died a couple weeks later when the car driver decided one of the other passengers, his cousin, needed to be shot over a drug disagreement. Fortunately, the cousin was able to do his impression of the 100 m hurdles over the neighbors’ hedges and fences while the gun was being repaired with a kitchen fork. All shots missed.

    The question shifted in many minds from bad policing to bad parenting.

    • art thiel

      Every case is unique. Legal precedents are one thing; anecdotal analogies another.

      Besides, until we license parenting, there’s little governance. Cops, we hire to a standard of behavior.

  • RadioGuy

    The five Rams have the same right all Americans have to express their opinions, although doing it at a workplace comes at its own peril, while the rest of us have the right to accept or reject their point. The First Amendment is a non-issue as long as nobody else’s rights are being violated.

    • art thiel

      I don’t think the issue of constitutional rights is at stake. The issue is commercial, the risk/reward in taking a political stand while at work.

      • RadioGuy

        In this case, taking a political stand of any sort in the anal-retentive entity that is the NFL comes at great risk. However, I think the NFLPA would be joined by the ACLU in responding to discipline against players who speak their minds…depending, of course, on whose side the player is on. The ACLU is pretty selective in that regard.

  • Gerald Turner

    Dude killed for selling smokes is a microcosm of or crony capitalism state-industry monopolistic country we got now. if you move in on the republican-democrat crime syndicate cartels territory, they going to rub you out. I prefer to stay in the sports world where the only criminal conspiracy is the NFL-referee-Dan Snyder syndicate trying to keep the Seahawks out of the Superbowl. OK, the four first round draft picks gift could have been just an isolated imbecile on a grassy knoll.

    • art thiel

      Not quite sure how that conspiracy keeps the Seahawks out of the Super Bowl. Then again, I’m still waiting on Y2K to happen.

  • Guy K. Browne

    Societal problems require societal solutions. Role models speaking out is one thing, but my guess is that in most DV cases, the offenders grew up as victims, and are practicing “what they’ve been taught”. I’m not a smart enough person to know the answers as to how to break the cycle the repeats itself, but my opinion is, that’s where the solution lies.

    • art thiel

      True enough. I don’t think the NFL wants to be, nor should be, a nanny-state arbiter of social behavior. But it can serve a purpose in being a corporate leader in no longer condoning DV by hiding/covering up/ignoring the perps and victims.

  • notaboomer

    charles barkley? the guy who thinks its ok to whip your children until they are bruised and bleeding as a form of parenting (see clip)? sherman’s “controversy” act is a shtick to get him noticed and get ad deals. he’s smart. he went to stanford and learned the art of capitalism from the railroad baron. he wouldn’t want to do anything that might slow down the construction of the union pacific now would he?

  • notaboomer

    if the seahawks or any seattle pro athletes had true convictions about injustice, perhaps they would have shouted when the seattle cop gunned down wood carver first nations member john williams back in 2010 and then the prosecutor dan satterberg filed no charges.

  • notaboomer

    why don’t paul allen, steve ballmer, and the faceless owners of the mariners come out of the seahwaks tunnel with “i can’t breathe” shirts on? what’s wrong? don’t they care. they won’t lose any endorsement deals. they won’t compromise their lucrative careers or standing as the world’s wealthiest men, will they? why should the athletes be on the spot. get the mega-rich owners out on the carpet to speak.

  • Bayview Herb

    Sadly, after the storm subsided in Ferguson, a detailed forensic examination showed that the criminal had turned and was bull rushing the officer I wouldn’t have a problem if the New York choking was featured, because the cop was wrong and cost a life over the sale of loose cigarettes. In the hands up, don’t shoot campaign the protesters are and were dead wrong.