SHUT UP and dribble. That’s the advice Fox News personality Laura Ingraham once gave LeBron James when he dared give his opinion on social issues (with which she disagreed).
Celebrities don’t always have the most informed opinions. But they do have a platform, and, when used responsibly, it can be powerful. Consider Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ raised fists on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics, or Muhammad Ali giving up the heavyweight boxing title as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.
Activism faded for a while, but it’s back. (And we’re not even going to discuss Colin Kaepernick today.)
Again and again, we’re seeing how sports can not only reflect social change, but lead it. Even Michael Jordan, who once famously avoided taking a stand by saying: “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” has committed $100 million through his corporation toward racial justice.
Bubba Wallace has never won a NASCAR Cup Series race, but he may be its most influential driver at the moment. It took exactly one day for NASCAR to concede to his one-man assertion that the Confederate flag be banned from races. This from an organization that was born in the South and has shrouded itself in Southern culture for decades.
Past efforts to disassociate NASCAR from confederate images quickly failed. But in the wake of George Floyd’s death, national attitudes have changed quickly. And once the Cup Series’ only black driver forcefully made his opinions known, the France family saw the writing on the wall.
And it was interesting that when Ray Ciccarelli, an undistinguished driver in the third-level truck series, said he will quit racing in protest of the flag ban, his announcement was greeted by sneers rather than support.
All of this shows that change can come at a glacial pace--until it hits the tipping point. Then it can move faster than a NASCAR racer without a restrictor plate.
Racing isn’t the only sport where social change is coming. We’re seeing it at the college level as well.
Clemson University removed the name of former U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun, a slave holder, from one of its schools after pressure from prominent football alumni DeAndre Hopkins and Deshaun Watson. And on Friday, athletes at the University of Texas demanded the school drop “The Eyes of Texas”--seen as a racist song--as its school anthem and rename four buildings.
Those moves came after high school phenom Nate Tabor signed a letter of intent to play basketball at Norfolk State University earlier this week.
Although ratings aren’t always an indicator of future success, Tabor’s signing is a very big deal--not only for the Spartans, but for mid-major schools in general. He is a four-star small forward (per ESPN ratings) out of Queens, N.Y. who initially committed to St. John’s before the Red Storm parted ways with coach Chris Mullen after last season.
Tabor could have signed with a higher-profile program; he reportedly had offers from UConn, Auburn, LSU and Texas Tech, among others. Instead, he chose a historically black college for what could be his one-year stopover before joining the NBA.
“As the talk of a culture shift in collegiate sports has become relevant recently, Nate Tabor has decided to start that shift,” Norfolk State coach Robert Jones told The Daily Press in Newport News. “It’s not every day that we or other HBCUs get a top-100 player.”
It may start happening more often. Mikey Williams, considered the nation’s best 15-year-old basketball player, recently tweeted: “Going to an HBCU wouldn’t be too bad.”
Williams’ post came after the top prospect in the Class of 2020, guard Jalen Green, announced he will play in the NBA’s G League (and earn $150,000) rather than attending college. Two of the top candidates for this year’s NBA draft, LaMelo Ball and R.J Hampton, played professionally overseas.
Their out-of-the-box decisions came as the NCAA struggles with allowing its athletes to cash in on their NIL (name, image and likeness). Although Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed his state’s bill on Friday, athletic directors at Duke and North Carolina, two of college basketball’s titan programs, issued a joint statement last week expressing trepidation about NIL legislation. With that background, why wouldn’t top players consider all their options?
Duke and UNC will continue to get more than their share of the top prospects, even if the NBA (as expected) again makes high school stars draft-eligible in its next collective bargaining agreement. And it’s unlikely that Norfolk State (or any HBCU) will consistently join college basketball’s top echelon.
But times are changing. And sports won’t be silenced as they lead the way.