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The activist athlete is revived

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NBA stars (from left) Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James spoke out on stage at the ESPY Awards July 13 against violence in America.Chris Pizzello

In this tumultuous summer, one in which not even the most ambivalent or reticent person could refrain from emotion, Carmelo Anthony has catapulted his status as a leader and spokesman.

It has nothing to do with his on-court exploits or whether he could finally lead the New York Knicks to the NBA Finals. Anthony has viewed himself not as a marketing tool for sneakers or an affluent professional athlete without the worries of the common man, but a thinker, a passionate man moved by the recent tragic deaths of two African-American men at the hands of police and the equally horrific killings of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La.


Our current climate is impossible to ignore. It seems reminiscent of 1968, when racial issues, poverty, and the Vietnam War debate coincided with a controversial presidential election. Our atmosphere is chaotic, but in the midst of a summer in which many NBA free agents signed rich contracts, including a record $153 million deal for Memphis's Mike Conley, a sign that the league is making unprecedented financial progress, it could be perceived as at least easier for some of these athletes to ignore what doesn't directly affect them.

There is a perception that today's athletes, the millennials as some call them, are disconnected from social issues. They are perceived to swim in their world of tattoos, lavish living, and material goods. Their skills have allowed them such luxuries, but the past few weeks have been quite encouraging.

When Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and LeBron James stood united and talked about their dismay with the police and civilian murders before the ESPY awards July 13, it perhaps served as a benchmark moment for current athletes, sending a message that these rich men who live bountiful lives and are celebrated for their athletic accomplishments do understand there are those left behind who don't enjoy such privileges.


And they also likely revert to their younger days, when they were those common men and boys and were perhaps a witness to violence, racism, and discrimination.

Anthony, during Team USA's Olympic exhibition games, organized a town hall meeting on July 25 in Los Angeles to discuss police-related shootings and to help develop solutions that could foster change in the relationship between police and communities of color.

Community leaders and members of the police department, along with community residents, attended. It was fresh, healthy dialogue, headed by an athlete who is neither from Los Angeles nor lives there. That hardly mattered. It's about time professional athletes — of all colors — become more socially active.

No one is saying every athlete has to be active and it would be nice if those athletes who are adequately educate themselves on the topics they decide to get involved with. But for far too long current 20-something and 30-something athletes have lived in a bubble, afraid to jeopardize their marketability and earning power, their every move fueled by agents who seek to profit off their financial success.

And in some ways it's understandable at a younger age because athletes have dedicated their lives to excelling in sports and ignoring outside distractions to reach their dreams. But this chaotic world can no longer be viewed as an outside distraction, but something that has to be acknowledged.

Perhaps the death of Muhammad Ali, the standard for athlete activism, has encouraged current athletes to research and realize what he actually sacrificed in his career and also realize that the stakes of their outspokenness would not be nearly as high.


But it's important and critical for youths especially to see that their favorite professional athletes do realize and comprehend the problems in our society. Growing up in the 1980s, the impact of athletes and their words were more poignant because they were truly considered heroes and because they did not have as much exposure.

I can recall growing up in Los Angeles and Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela in his deep Spanish accent advising kids to "stay in school." In those days, athletes lacked the entourages, the heavy security, and the exclusivity. They were stars but they were our stars, and there was a bond created by their friendliness and acknowledgment that we common folks did exist, and so did our issues.

As salaries have grown exponentially, media scrutiny has increased and image has become everything. Professional athletes have been encouraged to take fewer chances in the political forum. The perception is that taking a stand will damage their reputations.

But there comes a point where that shouldn't matter all that much, especially if the issue pierces your soul. Michael Jordan's longtime silence perhaps limited those offended by his opinions but also brought him a great deal of scrutiny for his passiveness and reputation as anything more than a great basketball player.


Ali was a thinker. Jim Brown was a thinker. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a thinker. Bill Russell was a thinker. And that is perhaps the biggest compliment an athlete can receive, that they not only dominated on the court, on the field or in the ring, but had enough consciousness to understand their impact on those kids who will never come close to professional sports and how no amount of money is worth being silent for something they truly believed in.

That is the stuff legacies are built upon. Those on-court memories and accomplishments may eventually fade, but helping improve your community and other communities and perhaps helping change minds and motivate those who come after you never do.

Gary Washburn can be reached at Gary.Washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe