Oden Gets a Vote for Standing Up for His Beliefs

By Michael Wilbon
Friday, February 29, 2008

It's not as if Greg Oden declared he was refusing induction into the U.S. Army or staging a sit-in or starting a boycott. But in these days of political and social inactivity among America's richest and most famous athletes, Oden's conversation with and subsequent public endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama for president qualifies as an eye-opener.

Once upon a time it wouldn't have been. In 1972, almost a year before the Supreme Court's historic Roe v. Wade ruling, Billie Jean King was one of 53 women to sign a petition in the first issue of Ms. magazine revealing, "We Had Abortions." Five years earlier, in a move that preceded a huge swing in the country's feeling about the war in Vietnam, Muhammad Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army, costing him three prime years of his career. A year after that, in the most defiant political statement in a sporting arena, John Carlos and Tommie Smith stunned America with a black power salute on the medal stand in Mexico City, when they raised their fists, covered in black gloves, while "The Star-Spangled Banner" played.

In the 1960s and '70s, the richest and most famous athletes didn't just protest or take on causes that often were controversial; they led the way. That largely changed as even rank-and-file team sport athletes began making enough money to identify more with the ruling class than the oppressed. When asked why he had decided to not endorse black North Carolinian Harvey Gantt in his race against ultra-conservative Jesse Helms, Michael Jordan said, "Republicans buy sneakers, too." It seemed to officially usher in a period in which athletes made a conscious choice of commerce over politics. Neutrality offended fewer people. African American athletes, with Jordan leading the way, appealed commercially for the first time to the mainstream.

For every Charles Barkley, who engaged publicly in political and social debates, there seemed to be dozens who followed Jordan, and more recently Tiger Woods, keeping their feelings on the most controversial subjects of the day private. And of course, unlike Jordan and Tiger, there have been exponentially more who simply ignored politics and culture and removed themselves from the discussion entirely. (Jordan, by the way, contributed to Gantt's second unsuccessful run at Helms and has given even more money to Bill Bradley and Obama.)

Often in this space I've defended Jordan's right and Tiger's right to keep their thoughts private instead of giving in to group pressure and taking a stand simply to satisfy others' agendas. And I will continue to defend their right to act privately.

Even so, I'm thrilled with Oden's decision to talk openly and write in his blog about his conversation with Obama. Had he endorsed Sens. John McCain or Hillary Rodham Clinton, I'd have felt the same way. (In fact, Oden just yesterday introduced first lady Laura Bush at a function in Portland, Ore.) What's important about Oden's involvement is he understands and articulates the importance of people 18 to 25 actually voting, and he apparently pays little to no attention to playing it safe.

Oden already has national endorsements with an appeal that's part Shaquille O'Neal and part David Robinson, and stands to make tens of millions off the court in the coming years. Nobody would have blamed him had, like most 20-year-old athletes, he no-commented if asked about the election or simply walked away from the conversation. Thankfully, he didn't. Oden wrote in his blog: "If the person I vote for wins it's gonna be because of my one little vote; at least that's what I'm gonna think. I think everyone should think that way. This will be my first presidential election to participate in as a voter and I hope that you younger voters will get involved. I think our votes can really influence the outcome so go out, register and vote for who you think is the best candidate to be the best leader for this country."

Years ago, the Nation magazine wrote a piece entitled "Where Are the Jocks for Justice," and it mentions, among other things, Redskins lineman Ray Schoenke organizing 400 athletes to support George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign with largely antiwar themes even though his coach, George Allen, was tight with Richard Nixon. It's not as blatantly risky as linebacker Dave Meggyesy of the then-St. Louis Cardinals being told by coaches and club executives that his antiwar views were hurting his team and his career. And it's hard to imagine anybody suggesting a blackball of Oden, as it has been said was suffered by former Chicago Bulls guard Craig Hodges. During a visit to the White House in 1991 he handed President George H.W. Bush a letter expressing outrage about conditions in urban America.

But it's a rather bold step now because after hearing the distinctive voices of Jim Brown, Arthur Ashe, Bill Russell, Bill Walton, John Thompson and others for years, it's been mostly quiet on the athletic front the last 20. When Steve Nash wore a T-shirt to an all-star game event that read "No War. Shoot for Peace," Coach Flip Saunders told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "What opinions you have, it's important to keep them to yourselves."

Nash didn't, thankfully, and neither have athletes with generally lower profiles, including the Wizards' Etan Thomas and another NBA big man, Adonal Foyle. But with Oden, the first pick in the most recent NBA draft, speaking his mind, no matter how innocently, one wonders if it will get others to thinking they don't have to face financial hits for being well informed and engaging in the national discussions of the day.

Oden, in a telephone conversation last night, didn't think what he'd done was any kind of big deal. He said he had gone online and read some of the reaction to his endorsing Obama, and found almost all of it positive. "I can't say I know every single one of his policies by heart," Oden said, "but I've done enough homework to know what I like about him. I really feel more strongly about young people voting, about making an educated decision. I'm not trying to tell people what to do or who to vote for, just to educate themselves and participate. What could be the harm in that?"

I asked Oden if he could see himself, down the road, being involved in politics and he said: "I can't even imagine that now, knowing enough to govern a city or a state. I'm just at the point where I'm watching CNN more than I ever have, listening to the candidates. I'm not the most educated guy in the world on the issues, but I'm getting there."

Oden recounted how nervous he was during what he estimated to be a 90-second phone conversation with Obama, all of it about sports. And he got to be nervous again yesterday morning when introducing Laura Bush. "They gave me a script," he said, "but other people were winging it. . . . I was so nervous. My voice was cracking. The governor introduced me and I introduced her. . . . I got to meet the first lady. It was very cool."

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