Athletes change; King's message won't

It's been 42 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, changing the course of every living person and even those born to the next generation or two, dramatically altering life in the United States from the delivery of long-delayed freedoms to the rearranging of the calendar. Only two Super Bowls had been played when Dr. King was murdered. The NBA had just 12 teams; Bill Russell was still playing for the Celtics.

The point is, Dr. King was taken from us quite awhile ago. You'd have to be, what, right around 50 years old to have any substantive memory of him, what it felt like to turn on the television news and see him leading a march or speaking at a local church. Not a single active athlete can remember Martin Luther King. Not one. With most coaches/managers now in their 40s, a great many of them have no actual memory of King, either. Though America's professional sports leagues, particularly the NBA, go to great lengths to celebrate Dr. King's vast contributions and his impact on both our overall way of life and their specific subcultures, he is to those who play the games an idea more than a man.

Forty-two years ago, professional athletes didn't have so much to protect. They lived, for the most part, in middle-class or upper-middle-class communities. They were very much a part of unglamorous neighborhood life. Many of them had offseason jobs. They were easy to see, to touch and interact with. The most famous among them, from Jim Brown to Wilt Chamberlain to Muhammad Ali to Bill Bradley, engaged in the everyday conversations and took, at times, difficult positions. Some of them stood with, marched with Dr. King. Perhaps I'm romanticizing the times a bit, but so many of them seemed happy to stiff-arm efforts, if there were any, of agents, marketing experts, public relations sycophants, fearful front-office executives and lackeys with access to talk them off expressing their positions.

And as a result, the conversations have become all too polite if they aren't sidestepped altogether, the athletes all too reluctant or too downright scared to speak out. It's one of a thousand reasons I've always found Charles Barkley refreshing, because he is unafraid not only to jump right into the discourse but also to be the one to start it. The "I am not a role model" conversation remains one of the important sports-based discussions of the past 25 years.

This ground has been plowed before, but it's worth repeating on Barkley's behalf (I've edited and written the forewords for his last two books) that he wasn't saying athletes aren't, can't and shouldn't be role models, but that parents should stop sitting around waiting on people to be role models precisely because they're athletes. Or, to update the conversation, because they're celebrities.

The climate for disagreement in the political arena has become so overheated, so mean-spirited, that it's entirely possible a Congresswoman lies in a hospital right now, fighting for her life, because of a difference in philosophy, an intolerance of disagreement. Maybe, then, the sports arena, with a greater capacity for disagreement, is the more welcome place for the difficult conversations, regardless of the topic. The sports world, once the holiday games have come to an end, can indeed celebrate Dr. King's spirit by engaging people, by using its athletes' popularity to bring folks into the tent for examinations beyond the playing of the games, for in-depth looks at race, gender, the economy, opportunities for advancement, for pursuing dreams.

And yes, there are plenty of people grounded in sports, active and retired, who take very seriously pursuing worthy dreams or guaranteeing that others have the opportunity to dream. I'm thinking, off the top of my head, of the commitment to education of David Robinson, and the commitment to health care of Dikembe Mutombo, men who put tens of millions of dollars of their own into a school and hospital, respectively. I'm thinking of the humanity of Drew Brees and Chris Paul, among others, post-Katrina; of Alonzo Mourning, among others, in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti; of the entrepreneurial spirit of Grant Hill, the environmental awareness of Steve Nash, the basic and old-fashioned honoring of motherhood as expressed by Warrick Dunn and his building homes for single moms.

There are heroes to find in the world of sports, and potentially so many more of them who might find their own courses of action if someone like Charles Barkley is there to boldly gin up the conversation, to agitate if necessary. The contributions aren't limited to touchdowns and gold medals and accomplishments in the arena; and if the people who pay lip-service to the celebration of Dr. King's life want to commit to more than fancy marketing campaigns and make sure his spirit lives on in a way no YouTube clip is capable of capturing, they'll realize that sport, as much as anything in modern culture, can rally and galvanize people in a way that, were he here, would make even Dr. King say, "Amen."

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN, and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with the The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.