Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Did you know that this one man could liberate Darfur?

Don't know if you scallywags have been following the Bron-Bron/Darfur petition situation, but I didn't find it all that interesting until I checked out FreeDarko the other night and saw the absolute avalanche of dialogue in the comments section about this particular issue. It appears that lots of people think LeBron has failed some kind of social obligation — a product of his status — to take a stand against genocide by signing a petition telling the Chinese to stop buying Sudanese oil.


At the risk of being extremely patronizing, I really don't give a flying fuck what athletes have to say about anything that isn't germane to actual athletic performance. Etan Thomas thinks torture is wrong? Awesome, and inconsequential. Curt Schilling supports the war in Iraq? Edifying, and irrelevant. Karl Malone is a Republican? Beyond the fact that nothing angers me more than people who think black people must vote Democrat, who gives a motherfucking fuckity-fuck? And, frankly, the fact that Ira Newble watched Hotel Rwanada and decided that he needed to sluff off some guilt by starting up a petition is, at best, somewhat endearing and at worst totally pathetic (let's hope he doesn't watch Blood Diamond, and then ask his teammates to turn over their Jacob's).

This isn't to say that athletes should sit in the corner and shut up. For better or worse, athletes hold an immense amount of capital with the American public, and how they decide to spend it is their business. Manute Bol is an impressive example of what one can do with even the smallest amount of fame, and I certainly consider him to be a rare, genuine humanitarian (unlike many other "humanitarians" who are or have been decidedly un-humanistic ... paging Mother Teresa). However, I'm comfortable with the fact that Bol is an exception to the rule, and not just for athletes but people in general. The man has sunk his fortune (and offered himself up as an object of ridicule to raise even more money) for a cause he believes to be worthwhile. We should praise him, see if there's some part of his example we wish to apply to our own existences, and go on with our lives.

Despite the fact that few of us are so willing to stick our own necks out for causes we claim to believe in — something I'm guilty of myself — many of us seem to expect those in "more fortunate" positions to capitalize on it in a way we deem worthy. Yet what many seem to ignore is that, particularly in the case of extremely popular athletes, it's precisely their unwillingness to become moral crusaders that allows them to ascend to their positions in the first place. Part of what has made LeBron (and D. Wade to an almost equal extent) so popular with advertisers and the target audiences is the fact that he's almost remarkably inoffensive. I dare say that if James decided to cop Adonal Foyle's political predilections, he wouldn't be on half the commercials I see during the NBA Playoffs.

Jordan was excoriated by certain black leaders during his career for not "doing more" for the black community. To be fair, a lot of people stuck up for him in the media, but the rap always seemed to stick; in many ways, Jordan has come to symbolize what many see as the complete superficiality of athletic celebrity. I felt the attitude that was fostered during Jordan's reign as the most ubiquitous of athletic celebrities, and continues to be applied to athletes of pursuant generations, is well represented by a Will Leitch quote he's busted out a couple of times when writing some critiques of Bron-Bron the last few weeks on Deadspin (though mostly w/r/t his play in the first two games of the Pistons series):

If you want us to drink your shitty sports drink, you must make your peace with it.

I like this quote both for its simplicity and its finality: In return for creating and participating in the kind of consumer-driven economy that allows people to profit off their notoriety by endorsing products, we get to saddle those endorsers with the weight of our (often unrealistic) expectations, whether those expectations are consistent with the attributes that have made them successful in the first place. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter if we even buy the shitty sports drink; we've managed to exclude such reciprocal behavior from our demanded-upon quid pro quo. Yet (I realize this is repetitive) we create a situation in which any athlete who attempts to satisfy that demand will likely see his popularity wane. Thems the motherfucking breaks, kid.

The example that springs most immediately to mind is that of Vince Carter, who before becoming a jerk in everyone's eyes for dogging his way out of Toronto, was an NBA golden boy. During that time, he did two remarkable things: He finished up his degree at UNC during the offseason, and decided to walk the day of a playoff game. The story became an instant sensation, in no small part because it was precisely the kind of role-modely behavior we claim to desire of athletic role models. Yet when he missed that shot at the end of the game later that day, he was almost universally criticized for his "unnecessary stunt" that presumably caused him to be tired. That the entire argument was flawed — there was nothing to suggest that fatigue, as opposed to simple probability based on the fact that, I dunno, basketball players miss game-winning shots all the fucking time, led to his inability to hit the shot — was to be expected of the hacks that populate the upper echelon of sports commentary. But what stikes me is that Carter's behavior belied a perspective that was admirable, because I don't think for a second he didn't realize what kind of publicity would be generated by his decision to walk, and I think he knew that it couldn't possibly be a bad thing for young kids who admired him to see. He should have been feted for his decision to do something that, while simple, could have an even moderately profound effect on a lot of kids. Instead, he got totally roasted for it, and I have no problem assuming that the response he got to his actions that day led to him saying "fuck it" and becoming the surly asshole he apparently is today.

I absolutely believe that LeBron, who apparently spent most of his teenage life preparing himself for impending life he now leads, saw what happened to Jordan and Carter. Maybe he even saw the potential wages of actual, legitimate outspokenness — Jim Brown, anyone? — and resolved to be as milquetoast as humanly possible once he became famous. I've got to believe this, because James is quite possibly the most singularly synthetic athlete-celebrity I've ever seen (at least A-Rod comes off as a little bitch every time something goes wrong, and Tiger is an inconsolable asshole when he's playing like shit ... those may not be desirable human characteristics, but they are nonetheless human). And you know what? More power to the guy. It's obviously attractive to the makers of shitty sports drinks.

I wonder exactly what Newble was thinking when he handed the petition to James. Did he really think that the most popular athlete in America today was simply going to sign his name on a petition criticizing a huge NBA market for doing something he probably wasn't aware was happening five minutes before, and then continue tying his shoes? Forgetting the fact that petition-signing is the crown jewel of political apathy, why on earth does anyone expect someone with so much to lose to engage in any kind of political action flippantly? Why did people guffaw when James said he needed to know more about the issue before saying anything further? That's precisely the kind of rationale I wish more people would use before ascribing themselves opinions of any kind.

Instead, James has just been offered further proof that discretion — if not outright taciturnity — is the better part of valor.

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