Where Have All the Sports Heroes Gone?

Since Michael Jordan, there have been few sports celebrities to reach icon status. What gives?

Getty Images

Life for the black athlete in America has drastically changed in less than half a century. More money. More fame. More freedom. More everything. Yet despite the multimillion-dollar contracts, endorsement deals and free agency, professional athletics suffer from a huge void.

I grew up during the 1970s and '80s with superstars who made our jaws drop -- whether they were in uniform or not. They were champions on the field. They were leaders off the field. I don't see anyone out there today who fits this description. Correction: I do. But when Michael Vick, Kobe Bryant or Tiger Woods makes my jaw drop, it's often for the wrong reason.

This came to me when I saw that a 69-year-old Muhammad Ali, who's handicapped with Parkinson's disease, had sent two letters to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seeking the release of two detained U.S. nationals, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal. I couldn't help but be saddened and wonder where the voice of the engaged, passionate and socially conscious athlete had gone. Why does Ali have to do this? Where are LeBron James, Donovan McNabb and Derek Jeter?

Ali was more than a physical specimen; he was a winner. He was a personality that created a legacy and spirit of goodness and humanity. Ali was an artistic, unrestricted man of vision and change. But while Ali was as much a political wonder as an athletic one, Michael Jordan was as close to superhero status as any man of our time.

Jordan's was the quintessential image of the '90s, even though his apolitical stance on issues concerning the black community was legendary, and he once went so far as to say, "Republicans buy sneakers too" when asked for an important endorsement of a black Democratic politician. One of the things that people liked about him was that he was ruthlessly unapologetic about who he was as a person. He wore tailor-made suits, played golf, smoked cigars, gambled and talked in the third person. Let's just face it: Despite his shortcomings, Jordan was cool.

But his cool and unapologetic personality seems to have ushered in a new type of modern athlete, and perhaps triggered the extinction of the socially conscious sports icon. He obviously didn't pass along to the top athletes of today what he learned from superstars like Magic and Dr. J. You see, icons are a combination of charisma, social consciousness and media creation, and whether it's Jordan or Joe Namath, they somehow become bigger than life itself. 

What we presently have is a plethora of walking and breathing companies that refuse to come down on the side of any issue, just like a Fortune 500 company that contributes to both political parties, no matter the outcome.

But we also have a generation of athletes devoid of personality, which makes it even worse. I wonder how so many sports stars can live with themselves and consistently ignore the issues of today. Let's do a moral inventory of the problems that have affected, and continue to affect, us globally.

There are still tremendous problems in Haiti. And while Alonzo Mourning has done a wonderful job with his efforts, he seems to be alone. AIDS continues to run rampant in America and Africa. The high school drop-out rate among African Americans is atrocious, poverty is at an all-time high and the mass incarceration of black men is epidemic. The modern athlete represents the worst of the United States today: widespread selfishness and a distressing philosophy of corporate self-indulgence. Obviously, greed has changed the games we love to watch and play.

As March Madness makes its way into our living rooms, I can't help wondering what will happen to these young men and women after they leave the confines and comfort of college sports. And while it's great to talk about how the NCAA should work to improve graduation rates and how student athletes should get paid, the reality is that college athletics affords these kids, black and white, an opportunity that most of us will never see, which makes me wonder if they, too, will elect to forgo the opportunity to be agents of change.