ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's been three weeks since a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri. What happened that day and the law enforcement response that followed had been hotly debated by a diverse range of voices. But one group has remained strangely silent, according to NBA veteran Len Elmore. In an op-ed for USA Today, he laments the silence of professional black athletes. Elmore recalls a time when things were very different. On June 4, 1967, he was 15 years old and saw a group of black athletes from across the sports world gathered to support Muhammad Ali, who was refusing to fight in the Vietnam War.
LEN ELMORE: The fact that these men came forward with nothing to do with sports but got themselves involved in something that had social significance really had a great impression on me. And what they did was demonstrate that they're more than just people who play a game - that they're important, that they have opinions and that those opinions should be heard.
RATH: So if black athletes were speaking about Ferguson and other issues about police brutality, what would you expect? What would you want to hear?
ELMORE: Well, you know, black athlete attitudes and beliefs and opinions aren't monolithic. Everybody has something different to bring to the table. What I was hoping was that people absolutely spoke out incontrovertible evidence that young black men are being targeted in the United States and really to be able to stand up as role models and to be able to talk about - beyond sports - the social climate in general and be able to answer questions because they've made it to the mountaintop and these young kids are looking to pursue that type of dream.
RATH: Now, not that long ago we did hear a lot of opinions voiced, you know, over the Donald Sterling affair when he made those just awful comments that were publicized.
ELMORE: Well, I think that was an easy one for guys to step up and to come out with opinions because there was no right or wrong side to be on with regard to what Donald Sterling said. But the problem I have with that is that people jumped to conclusions, didn't know the facts behind the statements, yet they took a position. And look at the influence that they had on the NBA. I'm not sure the NBA would've stricken as hard and as quickly as they did without that influence from the players. And I believe if they can galvanize for something like that, surely they can find it in themselves to be able to speak out in unity against the factors that create the types of things that occur in Ferguson.
RATH: So, why do you think that we're not hearing more? Is it reluctance to speak or nothing to say?
ELMORE: Well, I think it's a combination of a number of factors. I think there's always that purposeful isolation from the real world. You know, it's very easy to put yourself in kind of an idyllic world where nothing really affects you because of your status and because of your wealth. I also believe - and unfortunately that there's an under education about social issues. And I think also it really comes down to avoiding issues that might affect marketing and sponsorship.
RATH: Well, you probably remember back in the '90s there was this Nike ad with Charles Barkley. Let's hear a little bit of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF NIKE COMMERCIAL)
CHARLES BARKLEY: I am not a role model. I'm not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court.
RATH: I mean, do those who would say, you know, these aren't public intellectuals, they're athletes, you know - why should we care that they're not weighing in?
ELMORE: I think the impact that they have on young people, that's the thing that makes it most important for them to step up. And the irony of all this is that Charles Barkley says he's not a role model during that time and that was great for Nike. But look at Charles Barkley today. Maybe he got - the light bulb came on between the time he said that and today because Charles Barkley - a lot of people hold him up to be, you know, a paragon of honesty and candor.
RATH: Len, you had a career yourself in college basketball and in the NBA. Do you understand at all the reluctance to speak or were you pretty active yourself when you were playing?
ELMORE: Well, I mean, I can understand the reticence but I have never really allowed that to stop me. You know, I wasn't a superstar. But nevertheless I did try and stand for things that were right. I'm just one of those types of people. And I might have a big mouth. And I have something to say. And I wanted to be an attorney, which I am now, simply because I thought the law could change things. And so I really focused on that. I happened to be a professional basketball player because I was fortunate to do that. But in my mind, I've always been socially active.
RATH: Len Elmore is a college basketball analyst and attorney. He was a huge college basketball star at the University of Maryland and went on to play professionally for the Indiana Pacers, the New York Knicks and other teams. Len, thank you so much for your time.
ELMORE: The pleasure was mine. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.