Celebrity Activism in Sports and Society

Jane Fonda in the 1960s.

It is almost a truism in modern America that celebrities engage in various causes aimed at overcoming various challenges plaguing society. Much of this is accepted and even celebrated. As often as not, it is the result of a unique confluence of circumstances beyond the control of any individual. As Neal Gabler has written: “Celebrity not only has narrative advantages over traditional art, it seems to be the most effective, the most efficient, the most accessible, the most rapid, the nimblest means to reify the country’s inchoate fears and longings and to do so entertainingly to boot. Celebrity is protean. It can touch upon practically anything in American life: Race (O.J. Simpson), changing sexual roles (Bobbitt), middle-age crisis (Bill Clinton), betrayal (Woody Allen and Mia Farrow), sexual harassment (Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill), you name it. One is almost assured that if an issue is roiling omewhere in the American consciousness there will eventually be a celebrity narrative to dramatize it” (Neal Gabler, Toward a New Definition of Celebrity [Los Angeles, CA: The Norman Lear Center, 2010], p. 14).

Brigitte Bardot

As  Saabira Chaudhuri wrote in 2006 in Forbes: “Charities have long relied on boldfacers to help promote their causes. Jerry Lewis’ annual muscular dystrophy telethon dates back to 1966. Sexy actress Brigitte Bardot retired from Hollywood in 1974 to devote all her time to animal rights. Sometimes their motives aren’t entirely selfless. Controversial celebrities exploit charity work as a way to buff up an image, or perhaps even for tax purposes.” The complex interrelationships between celebrities and causes of all shapes and sizes go back centuries, but emerged as critical components in the modern media age of the twentieth century.

Mark Twain

Writers in the nineteenth century used their celebrity power to lead charges for alterations in the public sphere. Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Harriett Beecher Stowe loudly supported the abolition of slavery. Mark Twain denounced American imperialism and atrocities in the 1898-1902 wars against Spain during the Filipino insurrection. Twain famously wrote that there are “two kinds of Civilization–one for home consumption and one for the heathen market” and “two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him…then kills him to get his land” (Mark Twain, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” North American Review, February 1901, reprinted in The Freeman, December 14, 1921, pp. 324-27, quote from p. 325).

More recently, celebrities from many arenas have stood for societal change. From Hollywood—such stars as Angelina Jolie, Sean Penn, George Clooney, Marlin Brando, and many others—to rock’s recording studios—John Mellencamp, Bono, and 50 Cent come to mind—to others famous for being famous—perhaps Paris Hilton and John F. Kennedy Jr. are the best American examples—celebrities have long used their influence to change the world. They have something that others lack, the ability to gain an audience and make a statement to anyone. Their telephone calls are returned, their tweets are re-tweeted, and their causes gain note because of their championing of them.

Bono with President George W. Bush

In sports, likewise, athletes have long engaged in social causes, especially charities, and have received accolades for it. As only a few examples, bicyclist Lance Armstrong’s foundation has raised millions for cancer research. In addition, NFL great Bart Starr supports several charities, including the Rawhide Boys Ranch for troubled teens. Furthermore, NBA superstar Michael Jordan has supported several organizations, including Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs of America, Special Olympics, and CharitaBulls. Stan Musial’s “Stan the Man Foundation” supports the military and their families by providing financial support to them in times of crisis. MLB Hall of Famer Lou Brock and his wife are ordained and engage in a range of charitable activities through their ministry.

There are arguably two types of activists, and while many are of one type few are known for the other. The first type is the celebrity as do-gooder writ large. Most of the people mentioned thus far are in that category. Unless there is some scandal associated with these charitable activities, and that occasionally happens, these people are universally praised for their civic-mindedness and efforts to “give back to the community.” These individuals, for all of their positive attributes, do not challenge power but rather they embrace it. Unlike Mark Twain, they are more likely to appear in photos with political leaders than to call them out in any meaningful way.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono

The second type of activist is more like Mark Twain, a persistent and powerful voice for change that questions the power structure and demands a fundamental restructuring of society. They are revolutionaries rather than reformers. William Easterly characterized this phenomenon in the Washington Post when philosophizing on the differences between John Lennon and Bono. Without questioning his activism, Easterly comments that “While Bono calls global poverty a moral wrong, he does not identify the wrongdoers. Instead, he buys into technocratic illusions about the issue without paying attention to who has power and who lacks it, who oppresses and who is oppressed. He runs with the crowd that believes ending poverty is a matter of technical expertise–doing things such as expanding food yields with nitrogen-fixing leguminous plants or solar-powered drip irrigation.” John Lennon, however, was a different type of activist. He called out those who occupied the corridors of power to “give peace a chance” and to “imagine” a world without countries, war, or oppression. Easterly adds:

True dissidents–celebrity or not—play a vital role in democracy. But the celebrity desire to gain political power and social approval breeds intellectual conformity, precisely the opposite of what we need to achieve real changes. Politicians, intellectuals and the public can fall prey to groupthink (We must invade Vietnam to keep the dominoes from falling!) and need dissidents to shake them out of it.

True dissidents claim no expertise; they offer no 10-point plans to fix a problem. They are most effective when they simply assert that the status quo is morally wrong. Of course, they need to be noticed to have an impact, hence the historical role of dissidents such as Lennon who can use their celebrity to be heard (William Easterly, “John Lennon vs. Bono: The Death of the Celebrity Activist,” Washington Post, December 10, 2010).

Failure to confront the problem head on suggests a lack of moral commitment. Can one oppose the wrongs of the world without opposing those who commit those wrongs?

Sportswriter William Rhoden made a similar argument for sports figures and their activism, or lack thereof. While there is a pantheon of athlete activists in history, few today fall into that category. In his estimation, “athletes have ridden the coattails of protest movements, benefiting from the sacrifices of the [Paul] Robesons and [Jackie] Robinsons and Jim Browns and Muhammad Alis, but have been content to be symbolic markers of progress rather than activists in their own right, pushing progress forward. They have been unwilling to rock the boat” (William C. Rhoden, Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete [New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006], p. 217).

The ultimate athlete’s protest: Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics.

Although Rhoden was writing specifically about ­African American athletes, the story is the same regardless of race or ethnicity. They are processed, like so many manufactured products, homogenized “to get along, they learn by inference about the benevolent superiority of the [owners] and enter into a tacit agreement to let the system operate without comment,” said Rhoden. They learn, he adds, “to accept the power structure as it is. The young, talented athlete learns about the value of cultivating the far-reaching range of affiliations, connections, and alliances that can make the athlete’s…journey smooth; he also learns about the kinds of associations and ideas that can make it quite miserable or even terminate it altogether.” They learn early on to keep their mouths shut, uttering trite clichés and little more. That is one of the reasons why when an athlete articulates sophisticated criticism of the status quo, regardless of the purpose, it is such a delight to journalists and such a threat to owners and others in the power structure.

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2 Responses to Celebrity Activism in Sports and Society

  1. Spacegary says:

    Good points but there’s another side to this story – celebrities whose egos are so large they think they can use their fame to promote bigotry and bullying. Mel Gibson seems to be good at this.

    Liked by 1 person

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