When the Milwaukee Bucks’ Chris Douglas Roberts and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Rashard Mendenhall had the temerity to suggest the assassination of Osama bin Laden was something that oughta not to be universally celebrated, both athletes received no small share of criticism. While not signing up for Medenhall’s 9/11 skepticism, The Nation’s Dave Zirin pleads, “let’s stop perpetuating the idea that athletes have forfeited their right to say whatever they damn-well please.”
Whether or not you supported some or all the wars of the last decade (I think they’ve been a hellacious, unconscionable waste of human life that has serve to make the world a more dangerous place), there is a bigger lesson that the guardians of Jock Culture seem to be trying to teach: by being an athlete you have signed away your right to have an opinion beyond your choice of sneaker or sports drink. This is something that runs very deep in the marrow of our sports culture: that athletes, particularly black athletes should just “shut up and play.” They should feel fortunate to just to have the good fortune to get paid and they have no right to say anything that might make anyone even a bit uncomfortable.
If you look historically at athletes who today are admired for their courageous honesty—people like Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Jim Brown, and Bill Russell—they were all told by the sports columnists of their day that they should button their lips and just play. When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black gloved fists, a young sportswriter for the Chicago American by the name of Brent Musberger wrote, “One gets a little tired of having the United States run down by athletes who are enjoying themselves at the expense of their country,” going on to call them, “a pair of black-skinned storm-troopers.”
In other words, to be a political athlete in any way that doesn’t involve wrapping yourself in the flag has always been apostasy in the eyes of the guardians of Jock Culture