What would Larry Bird say?
By Jason Whitlock
Page 2 columnist

So Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate, believes that LeBron James, the $90-million shoe endorser, should fight for the rights of third-world "sweatshop" workers.

Nader, in conjunction with the sports industry watchdog group League of Fans, wrote James and his representatives in April urging the hoop prodigy to "separate himself from Michael Jordan," the mother of all sneaker pitchmen, and support justice for exploited overseas factory workers.

Nader later told New York Times sports columnist Harvey Araton that, "People say it's unfair to burden an 18-year-old with demands of social consciousness. My answer is that he's not getting an 18-year-old's salary. This contract proves he has enormous bargaining power, a superstar's physical image."

Nader is right, of course. It isn't unfair to expect someone so young to fight for social and economic progress. The freedom that James enjoys today was partially earned by teenagers and 20-somethings of the 1960s -- the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee -- who fought for civil rights.

What is unfair is the double standard that is widely accepted when it comes to how we view the character of our modern-day sports celebrities. It seems that only African-American-born athletes are burdened with the demands of social consciousness.

Andre Agassi was never expected to follow in the footsteps of Arthur Ashe. Larry Bird never needed to be as righteous as Bill Russell. Roger Clemens doesn't have to match Jackie Robinson's class and courage. A Great White Hope isn't expected to be as important as Muhammad Ali. And no one, even before the Trial of the Century, demanded that O.J. Simpson match Jim Brown's commitment to helping America's youth. (Take your time. Read the last sentence again. It might take you a minute to catch the humor.)

Again, I'm not suggesting that Nader's request of James was wrong. I'm just wondering why there's rarely a push for non-African-American athletes to develop an agenda that goes beyond on-field performance. Michael Jordan is vilified and deemed a coward for keeping his mouth shut on controversial social issues. I can't remember anyone wanting to probe Larry Bird's mind about anything more important than "tastes great" or "less filling."

Look no further than the PGA Tour. We in the media want Tiger Woods to be a freedom fighter of Nelson Mandela proportions. Woods, who is only one-fourth African-American, is expected to speak out against racism, sexism, war and Phil Mickelson's refusal to wear a manbro. Meanwhile, the Tour's non-Cablanasian players need only worry about their games.

Is that fair? More important, is it counterproductive?

Shouldn't the majority community be pressured into having a collective social conscious? Do African-Americans own the moral high ground in America? Is that why the burden of a social conscious seems to fall in our laps?

I've often been disappointed that the majority community seems to be so willing to overlook injustices that occur right here at home. America's social ills -- racism, sexism, etc. -- could be stymied more effectively if the white men in power were asked to be as courageous as Ralph Nader wants LeBron James to be.

Jack Nicklaus could spark more change than Tiger Woods. When an African-American speaks out against injustice, too many people dismiss the complaint as just another black man crying the blues. What do you think would happen if Bill Parcells, who has made millions of dollars off the sweat of predominantly black football players, said it's shameful that these same players don't receive a fair opportunity when they move into the NFL coaching ranks or into front-office positions? You think Parcells words wouldn't carry more weight than Johnnie Cochran's or the New York Times' William C. Rhoden's?

Trust me, African-Americans -- with the possible exception of Jesse Jackson -- get tired of bitching. We'd like a month or two off. I'd love nothing more than to see our lawmakers make the month of March "White Social Consciousness Month." It would follow "Black History Month."

During March the president would ask all African-Americans, including Charles Barkley, to refrain from bitching about anything, and white men, particularly white sports celebrities, would be asked to lead the fight against racism, sexism and overseas sweatshops.

If white men cooperated and just fought against the obvious, blatant racism and sexism they witness on a daily basis, by mid-March Jesse Jackson would be out of work and flat broke, Martha Burk would disappear back into oblivion and you'd never read another column from me that addressed a racial issue.

Jason Whitlock is a regular columnist for the Kansas City Star (kcstar.com), the host of a morning-drive talk show, "Jason Whitlock's Neighborhood" on Sports Radio 810 WHB (810whb.com) and a regular contributor on ESPN The Magazine's Sunday morning edition of The Sports Reporters. He can be reached at ballstate0@aol.com.



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