I grew up listening to Joe DiMaggio peddle coffee makers, “Mean Joe” Greene campaign for Coca-Cola and Joe Namath pitch panty hose. True. Look it up.
They and a handful of other stars, including those who argued whether Miller Lite tasted great or was less filling, were the opinionated sports voices of my youth.
It used to be that if professional athletes spoke out about topics beyond their sport, it was usually only to sell something. They promoted products, not principles.
The voices today are different. They seek change, demand justice and make an impact beyond Madison Avenue. They don’t play the game that says, “Shut up and play the game.”
LeBron James reminds us that black lives matter. Mike Trout refuses to be mass-marketed. Chris Spielman sues Ohio State, claiming his alma mater had no right to use his likeness — as well as the likenesses of 63 other former OSU football players — on stadium banners advertising Honda without first getting their permission. And female athletes are speaking out against abuse, both emotional and physical.
The new voices are offensive to some, but some of the disgust is driven by fear of change. Some prefer the days of innocence, when athletes answered questions with “yes, sir” and only got worked up when debating beer.
At times, I long for the past, too, but thankfully those days are gone. The sporting world is growing up. Professional, college and even high school athletes are finding their voices en masse, and in doing so are finding freedom and power that once was reserved for so-called radicals like Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King.
Serena Williams cries discrimination over being drug-tested more often than her peers. Chris Long rails against white supremacists. PGA Tour pros strongly defend President Donald Trump. And a college quarterback uses social media to influence his school against hiring a specific coach.
In January, Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate tweeted, “I didn’t come to Arizona to run the triple option.” His post was meant to keep the Wildcats from hiring Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, who runs the triple option.
Tate’s tweet worked, or at least had impact. Arizona President Dr. Robert Robbins told Bleacher Report this week that Tate’s missive resonated with the administration. After initially considering Niumatalolo, the school hired Kevin Sumlin.
“I knew exactly what I was doing when I tweeted that out,” Tate told Bleacher Report. “I had to make sure I was heard, make sure the team was heard, because my teammates didn’t want to run the triple option, either.”
That either sickens or inspires you. No in-between. Gray areas no longer exist.
“We are living in two Americas, a divided nation,” said Kyle Kusz, who teaches cultural studies of sports media at the University of Rhode Island. “We see that reflected in our athletes as well. I’m not surprised to see it play out in sport.”
Here’s the thing: It plays out not only in black and white but also by blacks and whites. And by men and women. Race and gender do not matter.
Neither does age. Thursday night, I attended a group talk by a female rape victim on the need for male high school athletes to speak up against sexual abuse. Afterward, Westerville Central defensive end Dontay Hunter was one of several football players inspired to increase awareness of the issue.
Modern athletes are speaking up, period. For the millionaire pros, money provides power. Celebrity status provides a platform. For college athletes, “They’re now wondering why they shouldn’t get their cut (of a billion-dollar business),” Kusz said. “We’re in a post-(Michael) Jordan era.”
Jordan’s “cause” was selling sneakers. Athletes still want to make money by advertising their products, but their social conscience is awakening. Move over Mr. Coffee, something stronger is brewing.