The words of Nelson Mandela are inscribed on a water sculpture outside the Center of Civil Rights and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta. “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
Inside the same downtown Atlanta museum, another legend from the civil-rights era was smiling and sharing his thoughts on the state of things, where sports and politics intersect. Hank Aaron didn’t give fiery speeches in churches or town squares in his day, but he swung a loud bat. He excelled in professional baseball at a time when the world needed heroes and those with his same skin tone needed somebody to look up to who was universally admired by all races.
As Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general who received a social-justice award named for Aaron on Friday, said, “Mr. Aaron is a person I looked up to for as long as I could remember. I knew where I was the day he broke Babe Ruth’s record. He’s one of those people who’s been a quiet force for positive force in this nation, and he doesn’t get the credit.”
The stories in sports today are not as simple as a black man breaking a white man’s home-run record. An increasing number of athletes are speaking out about social-justice issues. Championship teams are declining invitations to the White House.
NFL players are expressing their displeasure with myriad issues by kneeling in silent protest during the national anthem. Many league owners, including the Falcons’ Arthur Blank, initially responded correctly by opening a dialogue with players and defending them against attacks from the White House. But then the league stepped in it by approving a new must-stand anthem policy without first consulting with the players.
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This was the backdrop for the “Hank Aaron Champion for Justice Awards.” The man at the center of the event didn’t hesitate to share his thoughts when asked about all the strife and athletes who use their platform to affect change.
“I think they ought to voice their opinion, regardless of what one may think,” Aaron said. “We didn’t get to where we are today because we kept our mouth closed or scratched our head and sat and didn’t do anything. If you have an opinion, then you should voice it and let people know that is your opinion and you’re not speaking for anybody but yourself.”
He was just getting warmed up.
The subject of players and championship teams, such as the Philadelphia Eagles and Golden State Warriors, declining White House invitations because of conflicts with Donald Trump’s words and actions was addressed. Would Aaron go to the White House if he were playing today and won a World Series?
He initially responded with a joke: “Go to the White House? You mean pass by it?”
Then he swung: “Would I visit the White House? Would I go? I have no reason to go. I’ve been there once or twice. And there’s nobody there I want to see.
“I can understand where the players are coming from. I really do. I understand they have their own issues and things they feel conviction about. They have a right to that, and I probably would be the same way, there’s no question about it.”
Aaron said athletes in general are speaking out more today than when he played, although there are some obvious examples from his era, including Muhammad Ali through his boxing career, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 1968 Olympics.
“To be honest, I feel somewhat guilty that I didn’t do possibly as much as I could have done,” Aaron said. “But (Andrew Young) told me, ‘Don’t feel that was because what you were doing on your end was much (bigger) than what we were doing on our end.’ So he makes me feel a little better.”
Those who have a problem with Aaron’s comments don’t get it. Sports and politics have long intersected.
I understand the argument, “We watch sports to get away from politics.” But one can’t expect athletes not to express their opinions. They’re afforded the same rights as teachers, plumbers and dockworkers. The fact they have a higher platform than most doesn’t eliminate those rights and shouldn’t mute individuals.
These are human beings, not cartoons.
“People weren’t particularly happy with Tommie Smith and John Carlos when they raised their fists,” Holder said. “But they wanted to talk about equal treatment of people in this country. Sports brings us together. Sometimes it divides us. Often it exposes inequities in our society. That’s a good thing.”
Holder, long-time NBC sportscaster Bob Costas and San Juan, Puerto Rico, mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz received awards named for Aaron.
Costas, citing the Eagles’ Chris Long as a positive example, said he hopes those who speak out for social causes are “not confined to only African-American athletes and people of color. I hope everybody with a conscience who has something to say gets on board.”
Aaron is 84 years old, but there’s no fade when it comes to the man’s passion. He still attends games, watches sports and pays attention to world events.
“There are certain issues that I try to make people understand I’m not totally satisfied with,” he said. “But I’m only one person.”
One man, one voice, but it’s a powerful one.
Listen to the, “We Never Played The Game” podcast. Check out the podcast show page at AJC.com/sports-we-never-played-the-game. Subscribe on iTunes. Also on Google play. Also via Stitcher or via TuneIn, or via the AJC sports podcasts, or the WSB Radio on-demand page.