Somewhere over the past few decades, the model of the sports hero shrank. It didn’t start with Tiger Woods’ refusal to say something — anything — about the lack of black members at certain country clubs or of women at Augusta National.
It didn’t start with Michael Jordan’s avoiding political conversations because, as the namesake of the Air Jordan sneaker famously said, “Republicans buy shoes too.”
It’s a cultural slide we’ve all participated in — athletes, media and fans — of expecting players only to play great and never to think great like Arthur Ashe, prod great like Muhammad Ali, talk great like Billie Jean King or Martina Navratilova, or challenge in a great way like Jim Brown or Oscar Robertson.
Somewhere we just stopped thinking the great athlete stood for anything that might put his image at risk. That’s why it’s so surprising and refreshing the Heat players stood for a team picture, heads bowed, hoodies on, to offer an Everyman look and push for an investigation into the tragedy of Trayvon Martin.
The photo was as understated as the message was powerful. Thirteen famous black men, their faces in various degrees of concealment, suggest any one of them could have looked like the 17-year-old Martin when he was killed last month by a neighborhood watch activist near Orlando.
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“When you think about what that family’s going through, it hits you hard and hurts your heart,” Dwyane Wade said.
“#WeAreTrayvonMartin #Hoodies #Stereotyped and #WeWantJustice,” LeBron James tweeted.
This was a voice neither James nor Wade had used in public. No one even knew they had this side to them. Why? Because we’re all so conditioned to players’ filtering every decision through money or controversy that we stopped asking for such voices at some point.
Could this be an added bonus of the on-court partnership between Wade and James? Has their friendship emboldened their off-court voices?
Did the two players on this team with the most to risk in any public statement confirm it was time to test their credible voices for something beyond pitching shoes?
Or maybe this was just the natural step of maturity and an issue each felt passionate enough about to assert his social conscience. Certainly after eight years on the NBA stage, as grown men with growing children, Wade and James felt this issue of racial profiling and its tragic consequence hit home.
All the Heat did. Martin was a Miami kid visiting his father. He grew up in a neighborhood adjacent to the ones Udonis Haslem and James Jones did. He was just younger than rookie Norris Cole and just older than Juwan Howard’s son.
The NBA’s big fear is its typical fan — suburban and white — will disconnect from the typical NBA player — urban and black. And there are those who want their athletes to exist for them in a bubble world of sports, never wondering whether watching LeBron dribble is our version of watching Nero fiddle.
But this was the perfect issue, and they were the proper people to illuminate for their fans and, beyond that, the larger society. They had something to say and knowledge to say it, and they found the right voice in which to do so.
Once upon a time, sports was full of athletes using their voices for good. In recent generations, sports has become a social dialogue often because of the issues it regurgitates more than anything its stars say. Money. Performance-enhancing drugs. Broken trust, as in Penn State.
We wanted Michael Jordan to stand for more then shoes. We wanted Tiger Woods to stand for more than himself. They just didn’t have it in them.
The Heat, as a team, took perhaps the first team picture that serves as a social statement. The system may be failing Martin. But the Heat didn’t fail him. They made everyone take notice and, in so doing, showed how sports can still be on its best days.