Ali the icon is used to sell books, computers, snack foods, and anything not nailed down. Ali the man sacrificed his health, future, and untold millions by standing up to racism and war. No one is demanding you do the same. No one is insisting you get in front of a microphone and say, “I aint got no quarrel with them Iraqis.”
But you should understand that the reason Ali remains a “global icon” is precisely because he didn’t define himself by his corporate sponsors. When his handlers told him to stop throttling the golden goose of fame he said, “Damn the money! Damn the white man’s money!”
Evidence is accumulating that this won’t become the King James catchphrase of choice.
Your teammate Ira Newble tried to get every member of the Cavs to sign a letter calling on China to stop exacerbating the genocide in Darfur by dealing arms to the government. “There’s innocent people dying, and it’s just a tragedy to stand back and let them do what they’re doing,” Newble said.
One of Newble’s inspirations take a stand has been the person he “idolized as a child”: Muhammad Ali. That would be Ali the man, not the brand.
Newble stuffed fact sheets and articles in the lockers of every member on the team. He organized almost the entire squad to sign a letter that reads in part, “We, as basketball players in the N.B.A. and as potential athletes in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, cannot look on with indifference to the massive human suffering and destruction that continue in the Darfur region of Sudan.” Larry Hughes signed. “Big Z,” Zydrunas Ilgauskas signed. Drew Gooden signed.
Only two people refused and one was you. Nike, with whom you have a $90 million shoe deal, does business with China so you treated that letter like Dick Cheney treats a salad.
[There’s no guarantee the young Ali would have signed this letter either. He may very well have said he wouldn’t sign any letter telling China to get out of Darfur until the US was out of Iraq. After all this was a man who said, “The real enemy of my people is here.” But one thing is for certain: “show me the money” would not have trumped “damn the money.” No way.]
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader also tried to give you the chance to walk the Ali path. He sent you a public invitation to a forum about conditions in Nike factories. In the letter, Nader wrote,
“Mr. James, you are in a unique position to stand up for the people who make the products you endorse and to make the world a better place in the process. You can improve their working conditions in the contracted factories and pressure the entire sports shoe and apparel industry to change.”
You replied to the press: “No, I haven’t responded to it. But I think Nike’s a great company and they would respond if need be.”
The shoe wars continued in March in New York, when you dissed and dismissed Stephon Marbury’s $14.98 sneaker line. You, whose signature Nikes go for $150, were asked whether you would ever sell a shoe that didn’t cost a week’s pay at McDonalds. You said, “No, I don’t think so. Me being with Nike, we hold our standards high.”
Marbury answered your words with the underreported smackdown of the season, saying, “I’d rather own than be owned.” Damn.
Jim Brown once explained the allure of Ali in the 1960s this way: “White folks could not stand free black folks. White America could not stand to think that a sports hero that it was allowing to make big dollars would have the courage to stand up like no one else and risk, not only his life, but everything else that he had.”
The choice you face is frankly quite stark: how free to do you want to be? Do you want to be “King James of Nike Manor” or the King of the World? Only by refusing to be owned, only by displaying independence from the very corporate interests that enrich you, will you ever make the journey from brand to three dimensional man.
Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming book: “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports” (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to http://zirin.com/edgeofsports/?p=subscribe&id=1. Contact him at [email protected]
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #31 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Foul Ball Safety Is Still an Important Issue at Ballparks – Our guests are Jordan Skopp, founder of FoulBallSafety.com and Greg Wilkowski, a Chicago based attorney. We discuss the historical problem of foul balls injuring fans, why some teams are still hesitant to put up protective netting in some minor league and college baseball parks, and the fact the vast majority of players are for more protective netting in stadiums.
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Episode #30 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The State of College Athletics with Dr. David Ridpath: Problems and Potential Solutions – Ridpath is a sports administration professor at Ohio University and a member of The Drake Group, a college sports reform think tank.
Episode #29 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The Honorable Tom McMillen Visits League of Fans’ Sports Forum – McMillen is a former All-American basketball player, Olympian, Rhodes Scholar and U.S. Congressman. We discuss the state of college athletics today.
Episode #28 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Chat With Mano Watsa, a Leading Basketball and Life Educator – Watsa is President of PGC Basketball, the largest education basketball camp in the world. We discuss problems in youth sports today.
Episode #27 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Kids’ Sports: How We Can Take Back the Game and Restore Quality Family Time In the Process – Linda Flanagan is author of “Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports and Why It Matters.” We discuss how commercialized and professionalized youth sports are hurting kids and their families.
Episode #26 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: How Can We Fix Youth Sports? – John O’Sullivan is Founder and CEO of Changing the Game Project and author of “Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids.”
Media"How We Can Save Sports" author Ken Reed appears on Fox & Friends to explain how there's "too much adult in youth sports."
Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- Reed Appears on Ralph Nader Radio Hour League of Fans’ sports policy director, Ken Reed, Ralph Nader and the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner discussed a variety of sports issues on Nader’s radio show as well as Reed’s updated book, How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan. Reed's book was released in paperback in February, and has a new introduction and several updated sections.
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
Vanderbilt Sport & Society - On The Ball with Andrew Maraniss with guest Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for League of Fans and author of How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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Ken Reed’s Author Page on Amazon