I happened to listen to 1A on NPR this morning. This was a treat, as I am usually at my desk working when it comes on. And I am not sufficiently organized to listen to archived episodes.
But today was a treat. And it turned into an odd confluence of events. Today’s topic was “It Was Always More Than a Game: ‘Shut Up and Dribble.’” And it dealt with the notion, advanced by such deep thinkers as Laura Ingraham, that professional athletes should, um, well, let’s just quote her:
“Must they run their mouths like that? Unfortunately, a lot of kids — and some adults — take these ignorant comments seriously,” Ingraham said then. “And it’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid a hundred million dollars a year to bounce a ball.”
In short, “shut up and dribble.” The program featured Gotham Chopra and Jemele Hill – respectively the director and narrator of a three part Showtime series – “Shut Up and Dribble” — addressing the question of the role of athletes and social action.
But as coincidence would have it, I am just finishing an exhaustive biography of tennis great Arthur Ashe entitled “Arthur Ashe: A Life” by Raymond Arsenault. Ashe was the first great African- American tennis player. He won the 1968 U.S. Open, the 1975 Wimbledon Championship and contributed mightily to the United States Davis Cup team as a player and later the captain (essentially the coach).
But off the court, Ashe led efforts to end Apartheid in South Africa, promoted civil rights, worked for progressive political candidates and wrote “A Hard Road to Glory” – the definitive history of the African- American Athlete. Sadly, as a result of a blood transfusion following heart surgery in the mid 1980’s he contracted HIV, which led to his untimely death in 1993 at age 49. But in his last years, he worked tirelessly to increase the country’s knowledge of HIV and AIDS, at a time when ignorance was rampant.
But, according to Ms. Ingraham and people who agree with her, Ashe should have been disqualified from all of that activity, since he made a lot of money hitting a tennis ball. And I cannot for the life of me see any logic in this position.
Why should any intelligent, articulate person not speak out on issues that concern them? In her full comment, Ingraham alluded to the fact that no one voted for the players (in her case, she was talking about LeBron James and Kevin Durant). Is that what disqualifies them? That seems like it would be problematic for Ms. Ingraham, since, you know, no one voted for her either.
Is it the fact that anyone with athletic talent is just presumed too stupid to say anything meaningful? It’s not just Arthur Ashe that blows up this justification. But he’s a shining example.
So what is it? Does one have to join some exclusive club to speak out on issues? When did Ingraham join? And what is the membership criteria? Is Kanye a member?
I realize this is not a First Amendment issue – Ingraham is free to comment on this as she sees fit. And a private employer, like an NBA team, could probably require their employees to pretty much shut up and dribble.
But there are First Amendment principles underlying the discussion. That is, we don’t judge speech by the speaker. The First Amendment guarantees free speech to EVERYONE — no matter your race, gender or profession. And protections for speech – like the actual malice standard – apply to any speaker.
When the government is permitted to restrict speech it’s based on the content of the speech – not the speaker. The government can punish speakers for uttering threats, no matter the speaker’s identity. It can limit speech that incites imminent violence – no matter who is inciting the violence.
And focusing on the content is a good lesson for folks like Laura Ingraham. If athletes, or anyone for that matter have something worthwhile to say listen to them. If not, don’t. But pushing the notion that because someone has professional level athletic talent they shouldn’t speak isn’t just wrong. It’s un-American.