Champions (of a cause)

 Martellus Bennett, New England Patriots’ tight end. Photograph by Jeffrey Beall.

Martellus Bennett, New England Patriots’ tight end. Photograph by Jeffrey Beall.

“Should professional athletes be allowed to use their status to talk about things more important than the games they play?”

That is the question that Jay Caspian Kang asks in his most recent “On Sports” column for The New York Times Magazine.

It’s a rich, juicy question, because it goes to the heart of our ambivalence toward outspoken athletes, artists, entertainers and other public figures who are not public servants.

We admire celebrities, even fawn over them – particularly football and basketball players in this country – but we also resent people who are rich and famous, especially when we are not. So the thinking goes something like this: They’re making tons of money. They have every privilege. So they should get down on their hands and knees and thank God, keep their mouths shut and play ball.

But why? We expect these people to be role models, and part of being a role model is standing up for what you think is right, even when it’s unpopular or, at the least, controversial. Tennis players like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have spoken out about the war in Syria and the plight of refugees. Colin Kaepernick has taken a stand – or rather a knee – to remind us that Black Lives Matter.

Others like Tom Brady, Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter and Michael Jordan, Kang writes, have gone along to get along. But the days of bland inoffensiveness may be over, Kang adds, and I think he’s right.

We are at a moment in America – in the world – in which it is neither morning nor evening nor midnight as the doomsday-ers would have it, but high noon when every man, woman and child is going to have to decide who he is and defend what he believes in.

For championship athletes that may mean forgoing the time-honored pilgrimage to the White House for the presidential photo op (and weighing that against any contractual obligations to a team or a sponsor). New England Patriots’ quarterback Brady, who’s been coy about his support for President Donald J. Trump ever since reporters spied a red “Make America Great Again” cap in his locker, went to the White House for his first three championships, when George W. Bush was president, then skipped the visit for the championship that fell during the Barack Obama years, Kang observes.

Now teammates Martellus Bennett and Devin McCourty, who supported Colin’s national anthem protest, are among the six Patriots who won’t be visiting the Trump White House.

“I was a black man yesterday, and I’m going to be a black man tomorrow,” Bennett tweeted. “My wife and daughter are women today and will be women tomorrow.”

Precisely. Whether you’re a public official whose acts have changed the course of history, an actress or athlete who’s given joy to millions or one of the unsung who help keep this world humming, you are entitled to the integrity of your being, including your thoughts and their expression.

You have to live with that integrity, because you’ll surely die with it.