Athletes shouldn’t be pressured to speak on issues of the day

Celebrities are people, too.

This may sound elementary, but this basic fact gets called into question each time a performer or athlete chooses to speak on matters of politics or public policy. If any of them choose to do so, it is very often a lose-lose proposition.

More often than not, the non-celebrity welcomes a celebrity speaking out or, in the case of Colin Kaepernick, physically acting out — as long as he or she agrees with the opinion being expressed. If they don’t, it’s suddenly, “Why didn’t they stick to acting/singing/quarterbacking/whatever?” or “Who cares what he/she thinks, anyway?”

This has always been the case, long before Kaepernick decided to protest what he feels is the ongoing oppression of black people in this country by refusing to stand for the pregame national anthem. But Kaepernick has initiated a new phase in the general discussion. Throw in a controversial presidential election that has illuminated our profound differences of opinion in many areas of contemporary American existence and we have a whole new level of interest in this topic of celebrities exercising their First Amendment rights.

We now have renewed pressure being placed on African-American athletes from some quarters to take a public stand, whether they wish to or not. If what we really want in this ongoing march of time is for people of all colors and backgrounds to be regarded as distinct individuals, is this not unfair? Personality should transcend skin color. There should not be a one-size-fits-all approach to each and every issue in life. Just because an African-American player does not feel comfortable taking a public stand on something does not preclude him or her being a person of conviction who simply chooses to take a more private stand.


There is no better local historic example than the Celtics of the 1950s and ’60s. Bill Russell, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, and Satch Sanders, to name four, are all great athletes and exemplary human beings. But they are unified only in skin tone. They are all very different people, with very different personalities. Each man dealt with the abhorrent racism of the Boston they first encountered in his own way.


If you’d like another example, consider the 1940s and ’50s Brooklyn Dodgers. Jackie Robinson, was, well, the one and only Jackie Robinson. His way of being the barrier-bursting first “Negro” major league player of the 20th century has been well-documented. Less publicized were the trials and tribulations of teammates, and fellow blacks, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe. Campy was a gentle soul, utterly nonconfrontational, and was thus slandered by some as being an “Uncle Tom.” Newcombe was somewhere in the middle between Robinson and Campanella. They were three distinct human beings.

That is the case in every locker room, in every sport, at every level of sports competition in America.

If a player chooses to become involved in the public dialogue, it is not without risk. There could be financial ramifications, with regard to endorsements. Interestingly, it has come to my attention that perhaps the most famous example of an athlete citing economics as a reason to avoid taking a specific stand, that being Michael Jordan’s supposed reasoning for not endorsing North Carolina senatorial candidate Harvey Gantt against reprehensible racist Jesse Helms (namely, “Republicans buy sneakers, too”), may never have happened, at least not the way it has been portrayed.


What’s less clear is how what an individual fan feels about a player on his or her favorite team affects the rooting interest. I think we can safely say that home fans are more routinely tolerant of a player they would not exactly, as we say, have over for dinner, or marry into the family, as long as that player does the job competitively. The San Francisco fans cheered for Barry Bonds without reservation. Both Yankees and Cubs fans embraced Aroldis Chapman this past season, even though the accused domestic abuser was disturbingly flippant when asked about the charges. Next season another set of fans will be presented with that moral exercise.

But deciding if it is palatable to cheer for a player who has been accused of nefarious personal behavior is another matter. The issue of the day is free speech, or the exercise thereof.

Be advised that socially conscious athletes have been with us for a long time. We sent far from our best Olympic basketball team in 1968 because Lew Alcindor (only later would he become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Wes Unseld, and Elvin Hayes did not wish to participate. This was, of course, the height of the Vietnam War. Those Olympics culminated in the famed “Black Power” salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Activist athletes were very much in the news. I’m going to assume you know all about Muhammad Ali. Much to John Wooden’s chagrin, Bill Walton was a noted campus protester during his days at UCLA.


There are many other examples. Jim Brown and Bill Russell led a contingent of African-American athletes to Selma, Ala. The list is long.

It doesn’t shock anyone who knew Curt Schilling even a little bit during his lengthy playing career that he would reveal himself to be sitting at the far right of center in the political spectrum. But he waited until retirement to express himself in the most forceful public manner (I’m trying to be polite). Perhaps it just took a Donald Trump to materialize. Or perhaps Curt thought it was wise to keep his inflammatory opinions — such as that the old-timers so many of us venerate were vastly overrated — to matters of baseball.

This is no less an issue in the arts. Moses and Ben Hur (i.e. Charlton Heston) becomes something of a polarizer in his career by heading up the NRA. Alec Baldwin tries some people’s patience with his fiery liberal views. Barbra Streisand has raised millions for the Dems. Has this cost her any record sales? Or enhanced them? Who knows? In each case the performer has made a policy decision: I am a citizen first and a performer second. I’m OK with that. Some aren’t.

If you are going to stick your neck out, the best advice is to be consistent. Don’t distort your message. Some people who were fine with Kaepernick taking a knee during the anthem were not so fine with him wearing socks declaring all police to be pigs. That would include me. We’ve been led to believe that some people have sworn off the NFL because of Kaepernick’s actions. I think that’s a bit extreme, but I respect your right to feel that way. Anyway, as Yogi said (or should have said), if people aren’t going to come, you can’t stop them.


The First Amendment belongs to us all. That doesn’t mean we have to exercise it if we don’t wish to.

In any of these matters, it’s best to invoke the wisdom of the great Roger Angell, who reminds us that we should seek separation of athletic church and fan state. Said Angell, “They are what they do.”

Words to live by.

Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBobRyan.