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How has all this happened in the blink of the evolutionary eye? Twenty-five hundred years ago, the earliest of such athletic fields—gymnasia—were being built by the Greeks. Centers where philosophers strolled and teachers instructed young men in ethics, morals, science, math and poetry, where the playing field was a grand courtyard surrounded by libraries and lecture halls and classrooms with the intent of fully harmonizing the development of body and mind. A lad couldn't run, jump or hurl anything without learning how to question, how to think, how to see connections.
Somehow it has all become about separation, the promising athlete culled from the pack as early as nine or 10, placed with his select peers on travel teams, enthroned on an ever-rising pedestal through high school, isolated from the student body in college, fattened on the myth of his onliness by well-meaning coaches, parents and fans, then pricked and prodded weekly for psychological advantage by those same coaches: THEY don't think you're good enough! They don't respect you! Us against them, you against the world, the cult of self-anointing the athlete as its Ultra Self.... Is it any wonder in 2012 how many players, rather than join their teammates to hug and celebrate after catching a touchdown pass or nailing a game-winning three-pointer, strut away from them and glare? Showed you I'm special! Showed you I'm better than all of them (and even all of "us")! Is it any wonder that from such soil, no such thing as a sportsman social activist has sprung since the days of Jim Brown, Bill Russell, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, Bill Walton?
Tiger Woods took one step down that path, early in his career, in a Nike ad in which his words rolled on the screen—There are still courses in the United States I am not allowed to play because of the color of my skin. I've heard I'm not ready for you. Are you ready for me?—and, in the wake of a backlash, stopped there. Labor activists who requested Michael Jordan's support in their quest to improve sweatshop conditions and reduce child-labor abuse in the production of Air Jordans in Southeast Asia got none. "Moral jellyfish," Dave Meggyesy, a linebacker and antiwar activist with the St. Louis Cardinals in the '60s, labeled these athletes.
But scores of modern athletes, led by Woods and Jordan, create remarkable charity foundations, raise funds and donate millions. Taken one step further—watered with an investment of time and heart nearly equal to the money—a miracle such as Andre Agassi's academy for at-risk children in Las Vegas has bloomed in the desert. But when it comes to social action that might step on toes, that might send a shiver down the spine of their publicists or their corporate sponsors, what have American athletes done? "The scared generation," former Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton calls them.
"They've put the dollar bill in front of the human race," grouses Carlos. "That's why they stopped standing up."
"They have to speak up," insists Harry Edwards, a track and field and basketball star at San Jose State in the early '60s who went on to become a sociology professor there and at Cal. "They're the most visible expression of achievement and financial success in this country. Actors in Hollywood have always been very outspoken. Athletes have surpassed them as the Number 1 entertainers; they should be at least as outspoken. Those who set the table that today's athletes are dining at, they exercised that responsibility. Now you have to get past an athlete's corporate and personal advisers, and so he's got to think what's in the best interest of Buick and Nike and Starbucks and General Electric."
Fascinating how many of the recent sportsmen who've taken stands didn't spring from our system or our soil: Canada's Steve Nash, flayed by players, coaches and media for wearing a NO WAR, SHOOT FOR PEACE T-shirt on media day at the NBA's All-Star weekend in 2003, as the U.S. was girding to invade Iraq; Adonal Foyle of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, who founded Democracy Matters during his 12-year NBA career to educate young people on how money was strangling U.S. politics and to pressure politicians to change campaign-finance laws. The modern athlete who sacrificed by far the most for his cause—first his fortune, then his life—died here on Joseph's campus, and he, of course, was foreign-born too. Retired NBA center Manute Bol gave away virtually his entire $6 million in savings to build schools and hospitals in his native southern Sudan, then extended his stay there for a week in 2010 at the request of the president to oversee South Sudan's first independent elections even as a potentially deadly disease he'd contracted there, Stevens-Johnson syndrome, began devouring his flesh. He finally headed back to his family's home in Kansas, got off the transatlantic flight at Dulles Airport and was rushed to UVA Medical Center, where he died in searing pain virtually next door to the building where Joseph took Early African History as a freshman. "That," Joseph says, "blows my mind."
The only emergency he's facing now is the ever-shrinking time until Virginia's next football game, ticking away like frantic heartbeats on a scoreboard clock beside the locker-room door: 193 days, 2 hours, 14 minutes, 37 ... 36 ... 35 seconds until the 2012 opener against Richmond. He heads back onto campus, relieved that his coaches haven't cornered him.
He digs up some phone numbers and calls NBC News, ABC, the Today show, BET and NPR, leaving word of the UVA hunger strike in hopes of drumming up coverage. He fails to mention one thing: He's a football player. No one calls him back.
The strikers, most on their fourth day without food, are reeling when he joins them for their noon rally: an epidemic of headaches, dizziness, racing hearts, fatigue and irritability. One has strep throat. Some can chant only for a few minutes, then have to lie down. "I feel fine," Joseph assures Greg Gelburd, the family physician who's monitoring them.