This isn’t going to be about my thoughts on Ferguson, Missouri.
I have strong feelings on the topic, like pretty much everyone else in the country, but I don’t feel like spending the next three hours explaining how I feel. It’s a complicated, multi-faceted dilemma with wrong and right on both sides. For an issue predominantly about black and white, I think the majority of this is a rather ugly shade of gray.
That being said, I have no problem with anyone who chooses to let their opinions be known. That includes the seemingly 95% of all people on Facebook who have shared some type of meme about it, every talking head and political figure on the news, everyone who has chosen to protest on both sides (the peaceful ones, not the people who are burning buildings or driving at people through blockades), and yes, even the St. Louis Rams.
Jared Cook, Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey, Chris Givens, and Tavon Austin are the players in question. Five members of the St. Louis Rams who raised their hands as a way of supporting the protesters in nearby Ferguson. Five players who instantly found themselves hated by half of America. Even if you didn’t specifically hear someone say it, you know the response. “You’re paid to play the game! No one cares about your political views!”
There are some problems with that argument, though, starting with the fact that they probably don’t care if you care about their political views. I rarely post anything political to Facebook or Twitter; it’s just not my style. That being said, when I do it’s not to change your mind – it’s to ease my own. It’s when that feeling hits you that something in this world is so screwed up that you have to shout something from the heavens , just to get it off your chest. You might agree with me, you might not. I don’t really care. I just needed to vent.
Those five member of the Rams weren’t trying to force a political view down your throat. They were just letting their opinion be known. If you’ve ever posted a political post on Facebook, you’re guilty of the same thing. Do they have a bigger platform? Sure. That’s one of the perks of being a professional athlete.
The second problem is that in the long run we love athletes who take a stand on the issues. Would Muhammad Ali be as admired today if he wasn’t so outspoken about everything from race to religion to the Vietnam War? Would we even know who Tommie Smith and John Carlos are today if not for their black power salute at the 1968 Olympics? Who remembers anything about Rick Monday’s baseball career outside of rescuing an American flag from being burned in the outfield at Dodger Stadium? You know what Bill Bradley, Tom Osborne, Jim Bunning, Steve Largent, and Jack Kemp have in common, besides being world-class professional athletes? We elected them all to Congress!
The key missing ingredients when it comes to the Rams player’s protests are hindsight and time. It’s easy to look back at Muhammad Ali today with respect and admiration, but go back and look at how things played out at the time. The fact is, Ali was one of the most divisive figures on the planet. Today Smith and Carlos raising their fists in defiance of a society they felt made them second class citizens is one of the most iconic images in all of sports. At the time, there were people who thought they were nothing short of treasonous.
There are also plenty of athletes who we judge harshly in retrospect over their public stances and opinions. The moment John Rocker opened his mouth, he was a pariah. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf took a stand by sitting during the Star Spangled Banner, and he paid for it. Lots of ballplayers opposed Jackie Robinson when he broke the color barrier; their legacies are tarnished for it today.
We tend to love athletes with a social conscience after the fact, but at the time it can be one of the most harshly judged things they do. Like the stand they take or hate it, it takes guts to put your entire public image on the line. That’s why in the long run we tend to respect those who do it.
We can’t say for sure how history will judge the events in Missouri over the last few months, so it stands to reason that we can’t judge how we will look back at these five members of the Rams and their moment of championing a cause. What I will say is that it is wrong to judge them just because they took a stance. If you want to hate what they said, go ahead. If you do hate what they said, it’s probably because you have a strong opinion on the topic. Obviously, so do they. And in a world of sports where far too many athletes care only about the world as it affects them, or only choose to say things that will not ruffle the feathers of endorsers, I can’t look at what went down Sunday and call it a bad thing.