Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Intersection of Sports and Politics

I just got back from vacation, so this one is a little overdue.

Unless you've been living under a rock or only get your news from US Weekly, you know about the Russian invasion of Georgia last week. I'm not going to talk about the timing of the invasion with the opening of the Beijing Olympics, although I have been rooting vociferously against the Russians. And it would be really cool if an American raised a Georgian flag while on the podium and proclaimed "We are all Georgians!". And perhaps "traitors" Becky Hammon, an WNBA standout, and JR Holden (Bucknell '98), who are playing for the respective Russian women's and men's basketball teams, should have withdrawn from the Olympics at the last minute in protest (I'm sure there would have been a line of rich Republicans -- is that redundant? -- who would have taken care of any economic harm that would have followed). But none of those things are going to happen.

I want to talk about pro-sports here. Pro athletes, especially the highest profile athletes like Michael, Tiger and Kobe have gone out of their way to stay out of any political or social controversies for fear of harming their global brands. Despots and terrorists buy sneakers too, I guess.

This position is in stark contrast to earlier stars like Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and perhaps most famously, 1968 Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos' "black power salute", who used their celebrity to stand up for important issues of their day.

But what seems worse is that even in light of the invasion of Georgia, athletes are still going to the highest bidder, regardless of recent events. Just days after Russia began the invation, Jannero Pargo, who despite the foreign sounding name is really from Arkansas, signed a 1-year deal to play for Dynamo Moscow of the Russian League. Frankly, I think it's despicable. Players should understand that their brand can be ruined just as easily by the actions they take, not the just stands they refuse to take. I'm going to be the first one boo Pargo should he ever return to the NBA. And if Kobe or LeBron goes to play for a Russian club for $50M of corrupt oil and gas money, they should be unanimously reviled as well.

Now I don't want to limit this rant to the NBA. There are a heck of a lot more players leaving the NHL to cash in with the dollars being doled out by the Russian Continental Hockey League (KHL). Just this past year perennial All-Star Jaromir Jagr and goalie Ray Emery joined the Russian league. I hope you choke on your borscht.

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