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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Athletes more willing these days to take a stand

Members of the St. Louis Rams raise their

Members of the St. Louis Rams raise their arms as they walk onto the field during introductions before a game against the Oakland Raiders, Sunday, Nov. 30, 2014, in St. Louis. Credit: AP

Who are you and what do you believe in?

Until very recently, this is a question that many of our superstar athletes went to great pains to avoid answering. Taking a stand on something -- especially something controversial that could alienate fans -- was not perceived as good business. As Michael Jordan once famously told a reporter when asked why he wouldn't publicly endorse a Democratic senator, "Republicans buy shoes too."

Contrast that thinking with what we have seen and heard during the past two weeks:

Five St. Louis Rams walked onto a playing field with their hands up to protest a grand jury's decision not to indict a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer in the death of Michael Brown.

Athletes have spoken out through social and other media about the lack of indictments in Ferguson and in the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island.

LeBron James, the Jordan of our time, posted an altered image of Brown walking arm-and-arm with slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and spoke with reporters Thursday about the issue of police violence.

Is this a dawn of a new age of political activism in sports? While it doesn't touch the level of participation and social protest that was seen in the 1960s and 1970s by athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, more and more athletes are making the decision to stand for something besides athletic performance and sneaker sales.

In April, NBA players threatened to boycott after Clippers owner Donald Sterling's racist telephone rant went public, and the Clippers wore their shirts inside-out in a pre-playoff game protest. A number of athletes, both gay and straight, have come out in support of gay rights and gay marriage. In October, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers appeared at a University of Wisconsin rally to raise awareness about the conflict in Congo.

That this generation of athletes is more willing to stand up and say what they believe in partially can be explained by the social media boom. "The emergence of social media is making the athlete more comfortable [with taking a stand]," said Kathleen Hessert, founder and president of Sports Media Challenge, a consulting firm that has worked with a number of athletes, including Shaquille O'Neal and Derek Jeter. "Now they believe they can talk directly to the fan. So why not talk about things that matter to them?"

Having learned to distill their beliefs into 140 characters or less for Twitter may have made athletes think longer and harder about what they really care about, which has spilled over into activism in other areas. Athletes also have gotten used to the fan reaction, both negative and positive, to what they post on social media, which may have made them more willing to take chances in the real world by giving a controversial interview or showing up at a rally to support a cause in which they believe.

"I think the trigger to making that all happen is social media," Hessert said. "It's made players more human, more polarizing. But sometimes the most polarizing are the most interesting."

Which brings us to another reason. It's not just this generation of athletes that has changed, it's this generation of sports fans.

"I think a large part of it has to do with the change in society at large with the general population having shifted views, for example, on issues like gay rights," said Joel Evans, professor of marketing at Hofstra's Zarb School of Business. "Younger people are just more open-minded on a variety of issues."

Young fans have opinions and are used to expressing them through social media. More and more, they expect athletes to do the same. It's no longer cool to avoid controversy at all costs.

Still, athletes walk a fine line. Being outspoken can be risky.

"It really has to be something that they fundamentally believe in,'' Evans said. "It has to be authentic and they have to realize that once they take a stand, there will be people who don't like that stand. You have to recognize there will be haters and ignore them . . . There is a risk.''

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