This Monday, college basketball coaches from across the state – including Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and the University’s own Tommy Amaker – announced their opposition to ballot Proposal 2, which would amend Michigan’s constitution to ban some race- and gender-based preferences in public institutions.

Angela Cesere
Matt Singer

It seems odd that these coaches, who make their living teaching young men how to win basketball games, would get involved in such a hotly contested political issue.

But Proposal 2 is more than your typical political football. If passed, it will fundamentally alter the makeup of Michigan’s universities.

Just ask California residents, who approved a similar measure 10 years ago and watched minority enrollment in their public universities plummet.

With Election Day rapidly approaching and the polls showing a tight split in the electorate, the coaches decided that Proposal 2 is too important to ignore. They are taking a stand, opening themselves up for criticism and abuse based on their political views, in addition to the usual complaints about their coaching.

So why bother? Why put your head on the chopping block for the slim chance that your appeal actually impacts the outcome of an election?

The answer: Basketball coaches are citizens, just like the rest of us, with an interest in how this state is governed. The only difference is that they, as public figures, have a bigger megaphone through which they can speak. If they want to use it, by all means, they should.

That’s not to say coaches should devote their time to traveling the state, rallying support for every state-house candidate and local election. But if an issue is monumental enough – as Proposal 2 no doubt is – sports figures should be encouraged to take a stand.

It happens more often than you might expect.

In 2004, then-Toronto Blue Jays first basemen Carlos Delgado protested the Iraq War by refusing to stand for the singing of “God Bless America.”

“Sometimes, you’ve just got to break the mold,” Delgado told The Toronto Star at the time. “You’ve got to push it a little bit or else you can’t get anything done.”

Political speech in sports isn’t just a liberal phenomenon. Immediately after winning the World Series in 2004, Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling turned his attention toward securing another victory – President George W. Bush’s re-election. He went on “Good Morning America” to tout Bush’s candidacy and later recorded telephone calls supporting Bush.

Many sports figures even run for public office.

Jack Kemp, once an NFL quarterback, was the 1996 vice presidential candidate.

Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky was a hall-of-fame pitcher.

Former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne moved straight from the sidelines to the U.S. Capitol as a member of the House of Representatives.

NFL castoff Heath Shuler is currently running for Congress as a Democrat, while NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann is the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania.

Of course, there is nothing special about sports figures that makes them better politicians or more responsible in their political choices. But because of their notoriety, they’re especially capable of increasing public discourse and widening the political debate. In my mind, that’s always a good thing.

One look at a counter-example – a famous athlete who stays out of politics at all costs – demonstrates the negative repercussions of athletic apathy.

In his home state of North Carolina, Michael Jordan famously declined to endorse African-American civil-rights leader Harvey Gantt, who twice ran for Senate against notorious race-baiter and conservative Republican Jesse Helms. Gantt lost narrowly both times.

The always image-conscious Jordan explained his neutrality with the stomach-churning words, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

No one will ever know if Jordan could have turned the tide in those elections, but to me, his actions serve as a clear example of what sports figures shouldn’t do.

Athletes and coaches need not be political junkies, but they can alert an apathetic public to political happenings much more important than the outcome of this year’s Michigan-Michigan State basketball game.

On Tuesday night, we’ll find out if affirmative action has a future in Michigan. But no matter how the vote on Proposal 2 turns out, Amaker and Izzo deserve credit for putting themselves on the line and standing up for their beliefs.

– Singer can be reached at mattsing@umich.edu.

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