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Athletic but not politically active

By Eli Smukler

Feb. 11, 2008 9:05 p.m.

In 1967, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title as heavyweight champion of the world because he refused to fight in Vietnam, a war he believed to be unjust. As a national symbol, Ali helped the anti-war movement gain momentum before it had gained widespread popularity.

We still remember Ali as “The Greatest,” and his status as an American hero was never questioned when he hobbled up to light the Olympic Flame at the Opening Ceremonies in Atlanta in 1996.

Today, it seems the only time I hear an athlete speak outside of the sporting world is to sell me something.

I probably see Reggie Bush once a day on TV hawking a new product, and Matt Leinart shows up on the E! Channel more often than he does on SportsCenter.

But can you imagine either of these men using their clout to tell you that America needs to divert money from a war overseas to help the lower class of this country climb out of poverty?

When surveying the political arena, the public often looks to non-politicians for guidance.

Last Sunday, for instance, Oprah and Stevie Wonder both showed up at Pauley Pavilion to show their support for their chosen presidential candidate, Barack Obama. Is it not just as logical to expect that we would listen to a top athlete if he decided to voice his opinions?

Many athletes, who hold so much of our attention on the court and on the field, hail from some of the poorest, most disenfranchised neighborhoods in this country. Many others are immigrants and almost all are of draftable military age. Especially now, in a critical election year, with the war, poverty and immigration all hot topics, why are there no athletes expressing their political opinions?

Are pro athletes too worried about losing their endorsements to really speak their mind? Maybe, but does anyone really think America would stop idolizing Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan if they came out against an already unpopular war? Athletes can be some of our greatest inspiration for their displays of leadership, teamwork, poise, and commitment to their sport. Why shouldn’t we trust ““ or at least hear ““ their opinions?

Why do so few, if any, feel a sense of duty to use their celebrity status to change the problems going on in our government today?

As a Bruin, I don’t have to look far to discover the possibilities of that powerful combination of athletic prowess and political awareness. UCLA has a long history as a breeding ground for student athletes who are not afraid to speak out. In 1942, after leaving UCLA as its first athlete to letter in four sports, a young man named Jackie Robinson became an officer in the U.S. army. After two years of service, he was court-martialed and eventually honorably discharged for refusing to move to the back of a military bus by its white bus driver.

Later of course, in 1947, he would go on to break the color barrier of our national pastime by playing in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ infield.

In 1968, the top three scorers on the Bruins’ national champion basketball team, Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Mike Warren and Lucius Allen all declined an invitation to the U.S. Olympic team because they felt that this country continued to oppress its black citizens.

In the early 1970s, in the midst of one of the greatest dynasties in sports history, a long-haired, tie-dyed-shirt-wearing vegetarian named Bill Walton roamed this campus as both political activist and basketball star.

Walton was arrested for taking part in peaceful protests against the Vietnam War down on Wilshire and Veteran. That was the same year that the Bruins went 30-0 en route to a sixth straight national championship, after which Walton was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

While preparing himself for a successful professional career under the tutelage of a legendary coach, Walton made it a point to be heard on issues that mattered to him and his generation. As UCLA students, isn’t that what we all want for ourselves?

As a sports journalist and a sports fan, I study sports more than any other area of popular culture. Athletes have been my heroes since I could fit my hand into a baseball glove, so why shouldn’t their political opinions off the field have important meaning for me as well? I want a political role model to emerge in sports ““ someone who is smart and willing to stand up against some of the major injustices of our day, even if that is not the fashionable thing to do.

At a time when the public, especially young people, are captivated by both sports and political issues, I find the predominance of apolitical athletes to be a disappointing phenomenon.

Where is our generation’s Muhammad Ali?

E-mail Smukler at [email protected].

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