Lions WR Golden Tate: Social activism not a fit for all athletes

WEST BLOOMFIELD, Mich. -- Dave Bing dove into it fast. He had been discussing his friend, the late Muhammad Ali, when the inevitable question was asked. Ali was the most well-known combination of athlete and social activist in history.

It was a different era then, but the Basketball Hall of Famer wondered Monday why more of today’s modern athletes aren’t taking social stands like some of their predecessors. He wants to see it happen.

“They are standing on the shoulders, in my opinion, of guys who were not afraid to stand up for what they believed in,” Bing said at the Charlie Sanders Have a Heart, Save A Life golf outing. “I think today, guys are so insulated because of the kind of money that they make, they don’t really get too involved in some of the social issues that we’re still dealing with and they’ve got the perfect stage to do that.

“Muhammad knew he had the perfect stage and he used it to his advantage, and it was an advantage for all of us.”

But Bing thinks it is more than money that has changed athletes. He is starting to wonder if they understand their past.

“I think they have no sense of history,” said Bing, the former Detroit mayor. “They don’t know what it was like back in the ’60s. There were things that, I mean, I played in exhibition games where there were restaurants I still couldn’t go into and eat. There were hotels, when I first broke into the league, that we couldn’t stay in. So it was quite different, and so there was a connection between the guys who played in the ’50s and ’60s. We all got along very well. None of us were, quote-unquote, wealthy, because of the game that we played in because the money wasn’t there at that time.

“But the guys today, it’s more pure entertainment and I don’t think they relate with the fact that they wouldn’t be making the kind of money and living the lifestyles that they are living if there were not guys like Muhammad and Jim Brown and Bill Russell.”

Ali was dubbed “The Greatest” for a reason. He was one of the best boxers ever. His rise came during a divisive time in the history of the United States, between racial and religious issues and the Vietnam War.

Ali’s stance regarding the war -- refusing to participate in the draft, costing him his heavyweight title and keeping him from the sport for almost four years -- caught the attention of the entire world because of the combination of his platform and his rhetoric.

Not everyone can be Ali. Not everyone can even come close. Taking a strong social stance means having the wherewithal to deal with whatever criticism inevitably will come. And that might be part of the issue for today’s athletes for multiple reasons.

“In this day and age, the landscape of media and voice has changed,” Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “Everybody has one, everybody has an opinion on somebody. Back in the day, you might say something and a few people here or there are going to give you their opinion whether they agree with you or not.

“You say something now and if you’ve got five million followers on Twitter, you’re getting five million responses.”

Stafford said that might mute some athletes from taking larger social stances. Some have decided to, anyway. Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy, for instance, has taken stances against sexual assault, the NFL and head trauma.

While increased social media has changed things positively and negatively for the modern athlete, there are other factors for why players might be more resistant to taking strong stances on issues.

“Once we enter the NFL, you’re more than just an athlete and you ought to have that mindset, that you’re building a brand for yourself for now or when you’re done with football,” Lions receiver Golden Tate said. “We have a great opportunity and a great platform to shake a lot of hands, meet a lot of people, CEOs, C-level people with all types of businesses, and you only get one first impression.

“You never know how you can help someone or they can help you later on down the line. We’re not going to play football forever, so might as well develop relationships that can help you build something great regardless of your brand or foundation or maybe in the workforce later on.”

When Tate was asked why that philosophy wouldn’t also stand to be a good reason to become more socially active for issues, he explained it’s more of a personal decision.

“Like Richard Sherman, he speaks his mind most of the time and it’s worked out for him,” Tate said. “It kind of depends on who you are. Some people just want to stay away from the drama and all that stuff. Some people want the attention and can handle it.

“I’ll tell you what -- social media can build you up really quickly and they can break you down even quicker. People are heartless when it comes to being behind a computer, behind a computer screen.”

Lions coach Jim Caldwell said he believes his players have a good understanding of issues that matter to them and has said in the past he is comfortable with players expressing their beliefs -- something shown in 2014, when Reggie Bush spoke out about events in Ferguson, Missouri, and last season, when Ameer Abdullah and Isa Abdul-Quddus spoke out against presidential candidate Donald Trump’s stance on Muslims.

"I think you find some athletes that do and some choose not to," Caldwell said. "Even back in those days, not everybody did, but there were certainly a great number, maybe larger numbers than there are today because the issues were a bit different, even though some seem to be the same.

"But the times were different, let me put it that way."