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The Value of Taking a Stand: Sheila Johnson & the Navigation of Culture, Politics and Sport

Over the past few days, Bethlehem Shoals of AOL FanHouse/ has been writing about Arizona's immigration law -- titled SB1070 -- and how/whether professional athletes (focused on Steve Nash), the Major League Baseball Players Association, the NBA Players Association, and David Stern taking a stand about it. 

Earlier today, the Phoenix Suns actually took action: Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver made a public statement announcing that the Suns would wear "Los Suns" jerseys as a show of solidarity with the Arizona Latino community. According to Seth Pollack, Steve Kerr and Steve Nash have followed suit.

Fear not, this will not be a treatise on the controversial law -- you can follow me on Twitter and probably figure out where I stand on the issue. Instead, this becomes the perfect opportunity to think more deeply about the value of sports figures/franchises stepping into the world of culture and politics and a figure in the WNBA who has had quite a bit of experience doing so: Washington Mystics owner Sheila Johnson.

In one of Shoals' posts on, he links to a video from the National Visionary Leadership Project archive with an extended oral history of Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell. Shoals apologized in a Sunday post for "relentlessly invoking Russel", however given the subject matter at hand it's difficult not to.

My father lived in Boston for a short period of his life and always talked about not only Russell the player -- there was a time in life when I was taller than my peers so he wanted me to emulate Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- but also Russell the spokesman for civil rights. As a result -- fair or unfair -- I grew up thinking that Boston was a "flea market of racism" in so many words and that Russell was the black dude who simply wasn't willing to tolerate it, even if it meant jeopardizing his career or becoming unpopular with the fan base. Yet I simultaneously find it ironic that my father, who grew up in a segregated neighborhood in Newport News, VA, also claims -- similar to Russell -- that "he didn't pay white people no mind." The only problem at that time, he reminisces, is when white people actually got in his way. When a white child did wander into the neighborhood, they'd chase him away with rocks...and vice versa.

"There were not that many [civil rights] violations for me personally because I would not permit it," said Russell in one segment of his oral history. "There were a lot of attempts."

Yes, Russell resonates with me primarily because of my father. In fact, in my mind, I probably equate my father to Russell to some extent, but it's not my intent to persuade you of a son's overblown image of his father. The point here is that Russell fundamentally represents (for me) the athlete who chooses not to simply dismiss social ills as irrelevant.

A different time? Yes. More stark problems? Possibly. But the point is that he didn't isolate himself in the world of his sport. As described throughout his video -- which I encourage you to watch -- he did not make the attempt that some do to dismiss or separate participation in sports and and participation in culture. At the very least, they were blurred for him. Nobody can dispute that the intersection mattered for him.

"There was a huge misconception about the racial issues with the Boston teams and there were, except for the Celtics," said Russell in one segment. "The Celtics were the first team to draft a black player. Period. I guy named Chuck Cooper from Duquesne...The first team to start five black players were the Boston Celtics. The first team to hire a black coach was the Boston Celtics."

However, at some level we also have to acknowledge the role of self interest in choosing to stand up for a cause -- in the case of the Celtics, "all we looked for is can he play." In the case of man like my father -- or perhaps Russell as well -- not permitting violations of civil rights was as much about self-preservation and self-determination as much as any sort of altruism. Russell did fundamentally have to choose to stand for something, but that choice was obviously informed by his experience as a black man in the U.S.

Which brings me to this excerpt from Shoals' FanHouse article:

Why Stern Should Take a Stand in Arizona -- NBA FanHouse
This move, and other broad-based threats against Arizona the form of boycotts and general pariah-dom, completely changes the terms for NBA engagement. It's no longer a question of Nash, lone voice for justice, and the complications that would arise if he followed his heart. With the MLB union following the way, all of a sudden sports has an institutional precedent for taking on the beast. The NBA could, if it wanted, send a similarly strong message. The irony is, it has even less reason to than Nash.

That's not meant to sound callous, or underestimate, the backbone of the NBA Players Association. It's not like we're talking about the NFL union, after all. But strictly speaking, the issue of Latin American immigration simply doesn't resonate with the players, or most of its fans, like it for baseball. There are a handful of Latino players in the NBA, but there's by no means a groundswell. International imports, like Nash or fellow Sun Goran Dragic, are seen as more distant from -- not closer to -- the situation.

In chatting with Shoals about the article after reading it, we ended up discussing the fact that perhaps moreso than an ideological issue of whether professional sports athletes/leagues/unions should take a stand on issues like these, the bigger issue really becomes how practical it is to do so.

The matter of practicality ultimately extends beyond merely risking one's reputation: at the very least, there's the issue of whether the fan base built to watch people play games is the best target for political advocacy. Beyond that is coincidentally the issue of "cynical identity politics" -- should we assume that a person will have a political opinion that we want to hear simply because of the color of their skin, class, country of origin, etc. (e.g. deciphering Torii Hunter's remarks about race)? Why would we assume that someone who has no personal investment in a cause would take a public If they were to find talking points from a favorite advocacy organization and just parrot them, would that cheapen the cause? In other words, there are considerations beyond the moral obligation to "bear the cross" or stand against injustice because it's a threat to just everywhere -- it's a rhetorical matter that simply demands careful treatment.

Ultimately, it's not necessarily a pure dichotomy of speaking out vs. staying silent, but speaking out vs. taking action vs. public neutrality. All of that is informed by some sort of risk assessment: what is the social impact vs. cost to reputation?

The entirety of the conversation reminded me of an article by Lloyd Grove of the Daily Beast about Washington Mystics owner Sheila Johnson, which perhaps illustrates the point Shoals attempted more clearly. While Johnson is a successful businesswoman, her efforts to make a social impact -- most notably establishing BET which she is not "ashamed of" (and rightfully so) -- have been mixed at best. The whole article is worth reading -- if for no other reason, to acknowledge Johnson's many accomplishments -- but this part in particular grabbed my eye:

Sheila Johnson's Fight Against HIV in D.C. - The Daily Beast
"Politics, oh gosh!" Johnson says with a groan. "I feel like I was thrown under the bus on that one… The lesson that I’ve learned in all of this is I will never get involved in politics again."

Certainly, Johnson has participated in some things that she is no longer proud of and the political risk to her reputation was great. I personally refuse to watch BET since the Viacom purchase and found her endorsement of Bob McDonnell problematic at best. Nevertheless, simply saying one should never get involved in politics -- or culture -- misses another important part of the picture.

When I spoke with Mystics general manager Angela Taylor -- who works under Johnson -- earlier this year, she articulated what Johnson meant to her as a black female role model.

"I have a lot of respect for how she has taken on the challenges and gone about doing her business and so I feel like if I can do my job to the best of my ability and elevate her in her vision for what this organization can be then there's nothing greater and better than that," said Taylor. "And I think she's a great role model for all of us - for our players, for myself in particular, for the rest of our staff. It's great to see someone who is on a daily basis accomplishing so many great things and who is getting through so many barriers, whether it's about on the golf course or being involved with organizations like CARE."

Even if there are times when the position itself backfires or actually has unintended harmful effects, the very act of taking a cause one believes in and the way in which one goes "about doing her business" in pursuit of success has the potential to inspire others. At some level, there is intrinsic value to paving a path of success for others to emulate and taking the risk of being unpopular. To fear taking a stand for what we believe in simply because it's unpopular would leave millions in this world in a precariously dangerous situation. Business interests do complicate that picture, but lending one's voice to a cause as an advocate not only helps the situation, but also has the effect of inspiring others to speak for themselves. And sometimes the simplest words from those we admire can have long-lasting impact.

Donna Payne: Reflections on Dr. Dorothy Height
Far from being tongue-tied, I had a million questions beginning with, "What can I do to help the world like you have done?" Dr. Height politely asked my name and then said, "Donna, just be yourself and get involved wherever you feel comfortable." It was transformative. I replayed that message over and over for years: "Be yourself, do whatever feels comfortable."...And now her message of standing up, of being heard, or speaking out for injustice is what I pass on to young people.

A close friend of mine tells me I have an unrealistic faith in the "free market of ideas": not everyone wants to share or hear reasoned positions from others about the state of our society. Certainly, that goes double for sports fans and the athletes they admire. However, the alternative to me -- a society devoid of dialogue in which nobody ever voices the ideas that are potentially transformative -- is frightening to me. 

That the Phoenix Suns are taking a stand on something when they could remain silent, acknowledges not only a response to injustice, but the fundamental value of being willing to exchange ideas in a democracy. It doesn't really matter whether you agree -- an environment where people can openly and honestly share ideas is ultimately good for all of us.

Even if we disagree, we have to get to a point where we can honestly share ideas and listen to one another. The fear of backlash reflects an inability to dialogue. This should not be about a cold cost-benefit analysis or reputation risk assessment -- it's about participating in a society beyond oneself. Although I certainly understand the reasoning of protecting business interests or even the idea that its possible to "just be yourself"  and act in silence, to remain neutral in a world where many others have to live with dire consequences is also unacceptable.

The value of people like Sheila Johnson taking a stand is that they have the power to give others the courage to take a stand. That's not quite a watered down concept of "empowerment" -- which, at its best, implies not only taking a stand but also possessing the tools and ability to get results -- but simply encouraging others to give voice to their beliefs is an essential good. Even if it's just influencing people close to us, we all need someone to inspire us to find our own voices before any reasonable action is taken.

That's what Bill Russell did for a generation, what Johnson does for Taylor, and what my father does for me.