After hearing that Karl (the Mailman) Malone had become a spokesman for the National Rifle Association, late-night philosopher Jay Leno said, "Just what America needs—another mailman with a gun." It was a funny line, but the implication was wrong. Malone may or may not be on the side of the angels in throwing his weight around for the gun lobby, but he at least took a side. His new role as NRA mouthpiece is as much about the right to free speech as it is about the right to bear arms.
For the past 25 years America's jockocracy has adopted a pose of studied ignorance toward politics, using its profession as a shield: "It doesn't concern me; I'm just a baseball/football/basketball/hockey player." But several athletes have chimed in eloquently—and lucratively—on the phone wars ( Michael Jordan backs MCI), the soda squabbles (Sprite man Grant Hill says we should obey our thirsts) and the stink over deodorants ( Brett Favre lines up behind Right Guard). We know what Andre Agassi stands in ( Nike sneakers) but haven't the foggiest idea what he stands for. Aside from the pulpit rants of Reggie White, our favorite athletes' opinions tend to be bought and sold: paid commercial convictions rather than heartfelt beliefs. The modern athlete is a businessman, and to pronounce on any topic of import or controversy might be bad for business. Asked why he wouldn't endorse black Democrat Harvey Gantt over white Republican Jesse Helms in North Carolina's 1990 Senate race, Jordan, a Nike man, said, "Republicans buy shoes, too."
Of course, an athlete's opinion doesn't necessarily make more sense than that of your neighborhood checkout clerk (in every locker room in America there's a guy who thinks Roe v. Wade is an argument about how to cross a stream), but it's sure to be more influential. Sports stars' endorsements might not move political mountains the way they move product, but in a celebrity-driven society their words have inordinate weight. Voices carry better from a pedestal.
Malone chose to link himself with the NRA. After decades of athletes' seeming indifference about any letters other than BMW, that's a refreshing change. The Mailman could be ushering in a new age of the athlete-activist. Next up: Quarterbacks for Gun Control.