I received an e-mail from the bloggers @ Hugging Harold Reynolds and they pointed me to their post on Sports Figures at the RNC. (If you don't know what the RNC is then you are just not 'there' enough to deserve to vote) Among those ex-jocks (or current jocks) who spoke was none other than Thurl Bailey. (Who had a great NCAA career and a solid NBA career for our Utah Jazz -- his life outside the game has been quite fulfilling as well for Bailey who is a pastor and member of the LDS, and was part of a great singing bible video where he plays the part of Goliath) This got me thinking . . . aside from how it is super de rigueur now to be politically active (e.g. black athletes saying that they are for Obama . . . riiiiight, because those guys feel the same way about his energy policy or ideas about stem cell research as he does) professional athletes have been relatively mum about issues for quite some time.
The opposite happens to be people who talk too much, among this list are guys like Shaq (Kobe, how does my ass taste?), Ron Artest (who is smart, but not wise) and most recently, Josh Howard (who doesn't salute the flag). Sure, some guys like Charles Barkley can say anything he wants without people really being upset anymore as he's a caricature of who he used to be. While others like Rasheed Wallace are known by reputation alone, and his interview responses have been given with the cadence and passion of someone who had just had a full frontal lobotomy -- yet he is vilified in the press for his explosive expressiveness.
That said, behind sports individuals being highly guarded now with what they say and do (thanks John Rocker!) the major issue appears to be a lack of desire to do what previous eras of sports figures were willing to do. Namely, be public figures.
I remember watching those old NBA ads that were public service announcements, you may remember the ad of Mark Eaton talking about child abuse. I remember that one, and that was from back when sports figures were not afraid to actually take stands on things. Older guys, like Dikembe Mutombo, are concerned with the world that they live in and try to use sports as a starting point towards greater things. Few others look at sports as a launching pad, but rather a privilege that they use towards fame and wealth.
Some guys like Kobe (with large conflict diamond in ear) and T-mac have spoken out about Darfur in recent months, though when someone less famous (Ira Newble) tries to actually do something that gets to the root of the problem, he gets the cold shoulder from the ever image conscious NBA. I guess the whole point is to avoid controversy, and in doing so, professional athletes are encouraged to avoid doing anything. That's like cutting off the leg to get rid of an infected toe. Which is a very safe, but ineffectual way to be a public figure.