Miami Heat forward LeBron James wears a message honoring Trayvon Martin on his shoe before their NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons on March 23. (Duane Burleson/AP)

The spirit of leadership that many African American athletes exhibited during the civil-rights era has all but disappeared. As leagues prospered and players’ salaries and endorsement opportunities skyrocketed, most high-profile black athletes were unwilling to risk their celebrity status — and multimillion-dollar endorsement contracts — to attempt to effect social change.

NBA great Michael Jordan summed up the thinking with his infamous quote after declining to support a Democratic candidate, and civil-rights pioneer, during a 1990 senate race: “Republicans wear sneakers, too.” Perhaps the most iconic figure in sports history put his corporate pitchman status first; it figured other African American superstars would, too.

Given the lack of social activism by prominent black sports figures for so long, it was refreshing that Miami Heat A-listers Dwyane Wade and LeBron James led the team’s efforts last week to speak out about the case of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old Florida high school student who was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in February. George Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watch captain, said Trayvon, who was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, looked suspicious. Zimmerman has claimed self-defense and has not been arrested.

Amid allegations of racism, the tragedy has ignited national protests and prompted simultaneous county, state and federal investigations, as well as inspired Wade and James to engage in the discussion. They organized the team-wide response.

Atop his social media pages, Wade posted a photo of himself in a hoodie and James tweeted a photo of 13 Heat players wearing black hoodies with their heads bowed in a tribute to Martin, who had only a pack of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea in his possession.

Wade and James, among today’s biggest sports superstars, should be applauded for taking active roles in delivering a positive message of racial unity and challenging the disturbing stereotypes that plague this nation despite its continued progress in race relations. The Heat’s co-leading men saw something they judged to be wrong in society and shined a spotlight on it. They displayed courage.

In the black community, sports stars have historically held high standing because athletics provided the first opportunity to achieve racial equality.

During the 1960s, future Hall of Famers were out front in the civil-rights movement. Whether it was Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson or others, the message was unified and clear: African American athletes had a responsibility to help fight the racial injustices of the time.

For those men of courage and vision, it wasn’t only about lending their names to causes. They actually rolled up their sleeves and worked, organizing programs to help improve lives. Facing pressure from team ownership to remain silent, they spoke out.

Ali was stripped of his title for being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war. For more than three years, he could not obtain a license to box in any state.

Obviously, times have changed. In 2008, the first African American president was elected. Many current and former professional athletes, including Jordan, are now in the position where they can contribute quietly behind the scenes, actively involved in significant charitable work.

Sometimes, though, just writing checks and making appearances isn’t enough.

That’s why what Wade and James did stands out. They’re participating in a politicized form of social activism. That’s the dangerous type.

They made their feelings known despite the blowback they could face from some of the fans who pay their multimillion salaries. Following the initial splash of the tweeted team photo, Wade and James commented about the case in interviews and offered support for the deceased boy’s family.

Although that may not seem like controversial stuff to some, don’t kid yourself: The subject of race remains polarizing. There’s potentially plenty of blowback out there whenever the issue is addressed in a public forum.

Even if fans don’t react negatively, skittish corporate execs might. Wade and James make millions from their product endorsements. The companies who pay them no doubt are concerned they’re risking alienating some consumers.

James reportedly earned $30 million in endorsements during 2011, ranking third on’s compilation of the 50 top-earning American athletes. With $14 million in endorsement income, Wade ranked 11th.

There’s a lot for them to lose by making political statements, which was Jordan’s thinking. Wade and James could have followed the recent trend and simply put their money to work, contributing to organizations that promote racial understanding. It would have been politically safer to appear in a television public-service announcement stressing the importance of tolerance. They chose, however, to take a bold approach because the case is personal to them. Martin’s death struck them, as fathers of sons, at their core. I know how they feel.

Although my son isn’t old enough to leave home by himself, I fear what could happen to him one day if someone found him suspicious simply because of his clothing and his race. I’ve thought about that every time police have stopped me for no reason while I was driving home, and Martin’s death reawakened those unsettling fears. It’s an unwelcome bond African American fathers share.

Among blacks, Martin’s death has stirred feelings of racial identity that transcend economic status. Wade and James felt compelled to act as black men, fathers and sons. Fortunately for them, those roles matter to them most.

Regardless of what Wade and James accomplish on the basketball court for the remainder of their careers, nothing they do there will be more important than what they did for Trayvon Martin.