The Political Passions of Kobe Bryant and Other Sports Heroes

kobe bryant ira newble darfur The Political Passions of Kobe Bryant and Other Sports Heroes

We read a lot about movie stars and musicians who loudly voice their commitment to environmental and political issues – celebs like George Clooney, Edward Norton, Hayden Panettiere, to name just a few, not to mention all the performers at last year’s Live Earth event – but what about that other group of high-powered and handsomely paid celebrities?

Where are the politically-minded athletes?

A recent New York Times article suggests that “the modern athlete’s contractual servitude to corporations” via big money sponsorships might make them reluctant to lend their name to a cause that might adversely affect their endorsements.

But despite the professional (and often personal) risks, some athletes are not afraid to put their name on the line for a cause. Or, in some cases, their life. A shining example was Pat Tillman, who walked away from a successful football career to join the U.S. Army in 2002 and was killed in action in Afghanistan nearly two years later. Tillman’s contribution, however, is arguably among the most admirable because he offered himself not as a football hero, but simply as an impassioned American – and in the process ended up losing far more than a shoe endorsement.

But using celebrity power does work its own particular magic. NBA star Kobe Bryant recently filmed a PSA urging people to speak out on behalf of the atrocities in Darfur as part of a campaign for L.A.-based Aid Still Required. “If we can unite people who are willing to take a stand, miracles can happen,” he says in the announcement, currently airing online and on TV.

0 The Political Passions of Kobe Bryant and Other Sports Heroes

Basketball star Ira Newble, the son of a civil rights activist, has also done impressive campaigning for Darfur, writing a letter to Hu Jintao, the President of China, calling for (according to the Times) “intervention in the western region of Sudan, the African nation from which China is the leading importer of oil and by extension the financier of weapons used in the slaughter and displacement of non-Arabs.”

Newble nobly wrangled his Cleveland Cavaliers teammates into adding their support by signing his letter, and most agreed – an exception being LeBron James, whose reluctance may have something to do with his Nike sponsorship and the fact that the shoe giant has many Chinese investments. But Newble took James’ reticence in stride, telling the Times that “I was taught growing up that you take a stand for things you believe in, but it was a sensitive issue and I always understood the position LeBron was in.”

Other notable exceptions to the fearful-of-making-waves set include Etan Thomas of the Washington Wizards, who has publicly criticized the Bush administration and Orlando’s Adonal Foyle, who “created a grass-roots organization on college campuses called Democracy Matters to rouse politically disengaged youth.”

Of course for some, doing your part is not always about getting your name in the papers. The Times points out that there are plenty of athletes who, like other high-paid Americans, are willing to “speak more with their checkbooks” – a generosity that deserves equal mention.

As for the rest, time will only tell if more athletes will step up to the plate. Hopefully, whether or not they score a political or environmental touchdown will not be contingent on their designer sportswear.

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