WASHINGTON -- There was a time not too long ago when athletes wouldn't show up to inaugurations, they wouldn't endorse candidates and they wouldn't share their opinions on anything other than their sport.
There was a time when getting "political" in the sports world conjured up the same negative connotations as being "controversial" or "divisive."
There was a time when our sports stars cared more about bettering their bank accounts than bettering their country. As the infamously apolitical Michael Jordan once said, "Republicans buy sneakers, too."
Thankfully, that was way back in 2008.
While there is a laundry list of items that President Barack Obama will have to tackle as he steps into the Oval Office for his first full day of work Wednesday, there is at least one very big one he has resolved in sports. Sure, fixing the BCS and creating an eight-team college football playoff, as Obama has suggested, would be nice, but not even Obama can fix that mess. In the meantime, he has once again made it politically correct for athletes to talk politics.
Obama's run for the presidency, culminating with his inauguration Tuesday, saw more sports stars get involved in politics for the first time since Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar joined forces and publicly spoke against Vietnam and the draft in 1967. From Greg Oden to Baron Davis and Shawne Merriman to Tony Gonzalez, athletes not only supported Obama but they openly campaigned for him.
Now today's athletes may not be as willing to publicly criticize the president or go against their orders, but supporting a candidate and offering to help his administration is certainly a step in the right direction. It's like taking your money out of a Swiss bank account and putting it in Bank of America. Sure, it's a risk and maybe you're not exactly sure how you'll spend your money but at least you're not neutral anymore.
Many will say that it isn't up to athletes and celebrities to offer up their political views and opinions on current events. It's that same kind of thinking that has generally lead to apathy among voters and ignorance regarding to world news.
Let's be real. There are some out there who watch only sports stations, read only sports stories and listen only to sports radio. Judging from the TMZ video that surfaced recently showing USC football players unable to identify Vice President Joe Biden, there may be more than you think.
The idea that a player like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James could perhaps shed some light on such world events as the humanitarian crises in Darfur and Rwanda or support someone such as Obama running for office, because they share their beliefs and ideals, isn't just refreshing -- it's a necessity in today's world.
In a society where you can now surf hundreds of television channels, radio stations and Web sites and not hear one actual "news" story, it's more imperative now than at any point in our nation's history that today's athletes take a page from their predecessors and take it upon themselves to educate, inspire and lead the millions who follow their every step.
It may cost them a few endorsements here and there -- but no one remembers what shoes or soft drinks or cars Ali, Russell, Brown and Abdul-Jabbar may have used. They remember the difference they made in the world. They took risks and sacrificed their mass appeal in order to make even a small change and that is why history looks back at them as not simply great athletes but as legends in their generation.