Activist: Athletes wield real power; action needed

Prominent sociologist and civil-rights activist Dr. Harry Edwards says the efforts of superstars such as Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James in using their platforms as a means for social change reflect an evolution in power among top black athletes but that action will be required to effect real change.

Edwards, a professor emeritus at the University of California-Berkeley, told The Associated Press that athletes “have the capability today that we only dreamed about in the 1960s when only one or two athletes even had endorsements.”

He dated the punctuated moments of the evolution back to the early part of the 20th century, saying it began as fights to gain legitimacy, then access, before moving on to respect and dignity — and ultimately power.

“Joe Louis and Jack Johnson and Jesse Owens struggled for legitimacy,” Edwards said. Then “you began this struggle for access. Which is what Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby and Kenny Washington and all those guys were involved in. In the 1960s, the struggle was for respect and dignity.

“Now the struggle is for power. And these men have power. So they have a different forum than we had in the late 1960s to be able to go on network television and make a statement concerning violence and the killing of black men, women and children in this country. … That’s an exercise of power.”

The WNBA rescinded the fines after a public backlash.

It is almost economically impossible to ignore today’s athletes as the power they wield reaches further than their bank accounts.

James is worth millions of dollars to the Cleveland economy as the success of the Cavaliers motivates thousands of people to spend. The Cavs’ attendance ranked No. 2 in the league in 2009-10 and the past two seasons but dipped as low as No. 22 during James’ four years with the Miami Heat.

Athletes’ influence goes beyond promoting merchandise and ticket sales.

Social media allows athletes to directly communicate with millions of followers with a few keystrokes. Edwards explained that ISIS has used social media in a similar way to recruit self-radicalized people. The difference is in the message.

Dr. Joseph Cooper, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut, echoed Edwards in saying any major social policy — civil rights movement, feminist movement, passage of Title IX — began with multiple conversations.

But there must be action behind the words. Both said that is the next step in the process.

Cooper called for sustained engagement from athletes on whatever level they are comfortable — such as continuing the conversation, meeting with groups like Black Lives Matter, the NAACP and 100 Black Men, and identifying specific issues and targeting ways to improve them. Cooper also discussed the need to have benchmarks in which progress can be measured.

“All these athletes say we care about the Black Lives Matter movement. In a year from now, we want to see that you’ve actually been continuing in championing the support,” Cooper said. “Muhammad Ali’s legacy is a great example of how he didn’t rest on his laurels in making one decision and saying OK, that’s enough.

“In a concise manner, the steps forward are sustained engagement. What that looks like for each individual athlete and each community will be different. But it definitely involves tangible action, civic responsibility and engagement and accountability measures. The call for accountability has to be followed up with actual consequences if certain things aren’t done.”

Edwards said sports have become a religion in this country and around the world, giving athletes more influence than in the past. He believes as “walking corporations” they carry more weight than “the doctor up the street or the lawyer around the corner or even the community organizer.”

“Sports in modern societies really amount to secular religions,” Edwards said. “Athletes have a phenomenal megaphone. … So that obligation to speak up, especially in regards to the African-American outcomes and interests, is critical.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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