This year basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has become a presence off the court as a social justice writer and strident opponent of conservatives. He's a contributing editor for the Hollywood Reporter, and in The Guardian Thursday, he selected Serena Williams, gymnast Maggie Nichols and Colin Kaepernick as his athletes of the year because their commitment to sport and society left us better off.
There's just one problem with his selections: one of those three, Kaepernick, is no longer an athlete, and his conduct is deplorable.
Today’s athletes have to carry much more than smelly gym bags and the giddy dreams of their parents, Abdul-Jabbar writes. If they want to achieve athletic greatness, "they also have to shoulder the leg-wobbling weight of responsibility to the community." It's a responsibility that can come in charity work, being a role model or through political activism:
"At the same time as they’re pushing the boundaries of their sport, they have to help define and promote the values of their community, even if that goes against some of the members of that community. That kind of athlete needs as much courage off the court as they do on it. Maybe more. ..."
Abdul-Jabbar addresses Kaepernick first, as one of the three whose conduct is "most becoming as a professional athlete." Kaepernick is "out of the NFL but he is more powerful than ever," and "he is still being "punished by the NFL for exercising his right to peaceful free speech. Despite protestations of innocence from various teams, his continued absence from the league is a deliberate message meant to keep players in line and pander to football fans who aren’t also fans of the Bill of Rights. This is truly a case of a league misreading the room – and the decade. His influence has only spread more during his enforced absence from football."
Abdul-Jabbar absolutely "misreads the room" by overlooking massive opposition to Kaepernick. Then he alleges Kaepernick is owed the entitlement of a rich NFL contract. The notorious former San Francisco 49er "risked everything to quietly protest racial injustice while the NFL is unwilling to risk anything to do what’s right." Since voluntarily leaving the 49ers, Kaepernick has sniped away at America and public safety officers through derogatory social media messages. His conduct is not becoming of current or former pro athletes.
Nichols won an NCAA individual national championship this year, becoming the first gymnast with two perfect 10s in every event. "What makes her achievements even more remarkable is that she accomplished this while undergoing the kind of personal stress that would have sidelined most of us," Abdul-Jabbar writes. "Right before the start of the 2018 season, Nichols revealed that she was the first of what would become hundreds of young girls to accuse Larry Nassar, the team doctor for USA Gymnastics, of sexual molestation."
Complaining that Williams has been "body shamed" for her musculature, Abdul-Jabbar writes that she has inspired young black tennis hopefuls in a "mostly white sport." She's gone "even further in redefining the sport by redefining the way females are perceived, not just as athletes, but as women." How far downward did she redefine those perceptions during her volcanic blow-up at the U.S. Open? Abdul-Jabbar doesn't even go there:
"For most of her career, she has faced body shaming for being a muscular woman. Watching her stride onto the court confident in her powerful body is a stark refutation of the harmful traditional view of beauty which praises skinny, physically weak women in need of a man’s strength. Fortunately, that grotesque and self-loathing image is being replaced by women like Williams who aren’t ashamed of their muscles."
Abdul-Jabbar brings his story to a close by recalling that his basketball coach at UCLA, John Wooden, taught him that sports "wasn’t just about making us better athletes, but about making us better people. Compassion, kindness, and morality were more important than a championship season. Fame wasn’t an accomplishment, it was an opportunity to show our gratitude to the community that we are a part of by changing it for the better. ..."
He writes that these "three exceptional athletes" have "left us better off because of their commitment to a sport and to society." That may be true of Williams and Nichols, but Abdul-Jabbar misses the mark by assigning those attributes to the rebel Kaepernick. And by overlooking deserving people who ware actually athletes in 2018.