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Athletes using sports platforms to push for social change

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Athletes today are using their platforms as sports celebrities to bring attention to the violence that has erupted across the country and recently Carmelo Anthony has been one of the most outspoken.

The New York Knicks All-Star is taking a break from his preparation with the Olympic basketball team Monday to host a meeting in Los Angeles with athletes, politicians and people in the community to advance the conversation about what he's called a broken system.

University of California-Berkeley professor emeritus Dr. Harry Edwards said today's athletes have a level of power that Muhammed Ali and others didn't have in the 1960s, and they have begun using it to speak out against violence both by and against police.

How much change they can effect remains to be seen, as Ali changed the world.

The newfound power of today's athlete comes from monetary wealth, celebrity status and having the vehicle of social media to communicate directly with the masses. They can reach hordes of people, encouraging them to get involved in social change.

"Joe Louis and Jack Johnson and Jesse Owens struggled for legitimacy," Edwards said. Then "you began this struggle for access. Which is what Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby and Kenny Washington and all those guys were involved in. In the 1960s, the struggle was for respect and dignity.

"Now the struggle is for power. And these men have power. So they have a different forum than we had in the late 1960s to be able to go on network television and make a statement concerning violence and the killing of black men, women and children in this country. ... That's an exercise of power. They have the capability today that we only dreamed about in the 1960s when only one or two athletes even had endorsements."

Anthony, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade gave an anti-violence speech at the ESPYS and expressed their support of the values behind the Black Lives Matter movement. University of Missouri football players threatened to boycott games last year in support of student groups protesting the school's racial environment. School President Timothy Wolfe eventually retired. Serena Williams spoke out against the violence at Wimbledon. Members of the WNBA's Indiana Fever, New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury recently wore black warm up shirts in the wake of recent shootings by and against police officers, and were fined by the league.

The league rescinded the fines after a public backlash.

Anthony's meeting in Los Angeles coincides with the latest stop on the Olympic men's team exhibition schedule as the Americans prepare for the Rio Games.

It is nearly economically impossible to ignore today's athletes as the power they wield reaches farther than their own bank accounts.

James is literally worth millions of dollars to the Cleveland economy as the success of the Cavaliers motivates thousands of people to spend. Cavs' attendance ranked No. 2 in the league in 2009-10 and the last two seasons, but dipped as low as No. 22 during James' four years in Miami.

Their influence goes beyond promoting merchandise and ticket sales.

Edwards said sports have become a religion in this country and around the world, giving athletes more influence than in the past. He believes as "walking corporations" they carry more weight than "the doctor up the street or the lawyer around the corner or even the community organizer."

"Sports in modern societies really amount to secular religions," Edwards said. "Athletes have a phenomenal megaphone. ... So that obligation to speak up, especially in regards to the African-American outcomes and interests, is critical."

Social media allows athletes to directly communicate with millions of fans and followers with a few keystrokes and encourage action. Edwards explained ISIS has used it in a similar way to recruit self-radicalized people. The difference is in the message.

Dr. Joseph Cooper, assistant professor at the University of Connecticut, said any major social policy — civil rights movement, feminist movement, passage of Title IX — began with multiple conversations. But there must be action behind the words.

Both Edwards and Cooper said that's the next step in the process.

Cooper called for sustained engagement from athletes on whatever level they are comfortable — from continuing the conversation to meeting with groups like Black Lives Matter, the NAACP and 100 Black Men to identify specific issues and target ways to improve them. Cooper also discussed the need to have benchmarks in which progress can be measured.

"All these athletes say we care about the Black Lives Matter movement, in a year from now we want to see that you've actually been continuing in championing the support," Cooper said. "Muhammed Ali's legacy is a great example of how he didn't rest on his laurels in making one decision and saying OK, that's enough.

"In a concise manner, the steps forward are sustained engagement. What that looks like for each individual athlete and each community will be different. But it definitely involves tangible action, civic responsibility and engagement and accountability measures. The call for accountability has to be followed up with actual consequences if certain things aren't done."

Edwards pointed to the need for progress on both an individual and collective level. He said trust and respect needs to be built between individuals and police, and both sides need to acknowledge wrongdoing. There are criminals in the community that deserve to be arrested and there are rogue officers that deserve to be held accountable for excessive force.

The bottom line of any step is the voting booth.

"If you're out there marching up and down the street with Black Lives Matter and then don't go to the polls to vote out the mayor of Ferguson, to vote out the sheriff of Milwaukee county or whatever, then ... you're marching into a cul-de-sac," Edwards said. "When you march into a cul-de-sac and just come back out angry, you're not a member of a movement because it's not going anywhere. You're a member of a mob.

"And the difference in a representative democracy between a movement and a mob is whether you follow through with the actions necessary to make the changes that you've been trying to convince people are the correct direction to go."