Where Have the Sports Stars Gone?

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The reluctance of sports stars to get involved in celebrity activism in any sustained fashion has been a recurring theme of this blogger’s Celebrity posts. I have mentioned this issue in the past with reference to team stars: despite some notable exceptions this category – sports figures – have seldom been engaged in celebrity activism in comparison to personalities located in the world of movies and music.

But when examined against stars in individual sports such as tennis and golf – sports with high profile through Wimbledon and the US and British Opens – team players in fact do quite well.  At least in team sports we have clear exceptions, some of which we have profiled (Yao Ming, and the Barcelona football team) and others which deserve attention.

As this is a large topic I will isolate and examine independently the individual sports – tennis and golf – with tennis leading off, as we are in the midst right now of Wimbledon.

One name that represents major commitment is Maria Sharapova, who joined National Basketball Association icon LeBron James in 2007 to “Team Up Against Poverty” on a new UN Development Program advertisement.  The UNDP initiative was to raise support for achieving the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Well-known photographer Patrick Demarchelier photographed both stars in a striking series of UNDP campaign ads.

Given her embrace of a glamorous consumer-oriented life style her commitment to this UNDP initiative might seem surprising. Yet Sharapova’s role in this campaign is not as surprising as it might appear given her very poor origins.  In fact she was born in in Siberia, after her family fled the town of Gomel – now part of Belarus – in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl accident.  Moreover, although living the American dream in Manhattan Beach (with a mega engagement ring from another NBA player, Sasha Vujacic) Sharapova’s commitment to her place of origin – at the center of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster seems completely genuine. Not only did she provide a UNDP video marking the 25th anniversary of the accident but she has donated money from her own personal foundation and made a UNDP sponsored trip in June 2010.

Sharapova, however, is an exception, largely, who stands out at among women players. But there is also Justine Henin, the now retired player from Belgium, who is a UNESCO Champion of Sport. And there are several others who are UNICEF National Ambassadors.

A similar situation exists among male tennis players, as the only star that jumps out (albeit at the top of the all time greats list) is Roger Federer, who became a UNICEF goodwill ambassador in 2006. In a welcome message the Swiss legend said: “It is our responsibility to connect with the real world beyond our sport, to use our fortune to make a difference in the lives of those who most need it.”

Cynics of course can say that Sharapova and Federer are in a position to take on these responsibilities, as they can balance this work with enormous commercial endorsements including those for luxury items (Tiffany among other things for Sharapova, Rolex for Federer). They also have the management teams to facilitate their celebrity matters.

Yet, whatever the motivations and support, Sharapova and Federer remain the exceptions that prove the rule. This exceptionalism is further emphasized by the fact that all of the athletes mentioned as celebrity activists (besides LeBron, who himself needs further attention) have been born outside of the United States.

As golf further attests, US distinctiveness highlights a decided lack of enthusiasm by individual sports celebrities getting involved in celebrity activism. I will scrutinize this in upcoming blog posts.

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