Manute Bol was not regarded as the most graceful player on the court during his playing days in the NBA, and his statistics will not earn him a place in the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. Yet, his death last week reminds us that professional athletes can make a difference off the court, and the tremendous resources they possess or can access can be used to improve conditions for those less fortunate.
The Sudanese athlete never forgot from “whence he came” and felt responsible to help the people of Sudan through his success in the United States. Bol did not make a lot of money in the NBA compared to today’s athletes, but he used what he had to assist his country’s poor. In a day and age when professional athletes, in all sports, show little regard for the plight of people in the very cities their teams call home, Manute Bol set a new standard for conscientious philanthropy that others should follow. Imagine had Michael Jordan taken an aggressive role in making sure the Nike shoes that carry his name were priced lower to prevent them from becoming a deadly material obsession among youth, or had he taken a hard line again sweatshop labor? Too many of our athletes, most of who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, simply take the check and never look back.
Former All-Star and Hall of Fame player Charles Barkley once infamously proclaimed that he should not be considered a role model. Whether “considered” one or not, Black athletes fill that role as television and the Internet confers special status on their athletic ability. While we support the idea that teachers, public servants and professionals represent the ideal for our youth to emulate, we cannot ignore the fact that the celebrity that comes with being a professional athlete places them on a unique pedestal. Sadly, too many disappoint by their selfish behavior and do more damage than good.
We don’t expect professional athletes to simply hand over their money because folks come calling. Like any other worker, they have the right to earn wages and determine how and where to spend their money. The privileged position of the Black athlete, though, requires more. Despite the big house, high-end automobiles, and “bling,” most are a step removed from their upbringing. We see it in their maintenance of ties, some good and some bad, back to their neighborhood. Black athletes command tremendous personal appeal and respect in our community, and their personal wealth gives them a unique platform to inspire broad change in our community. Manute Bol understood that and lived a life committed to serving others.
Sadly, Manute Bol died at an early age, just 47, and from published reports his final days were spent in some pain. It would be a tragedy and disgrace if the NBA did not honor him in some way. We hope Commissioner David Stern would designate a humanitarian award in Manute Bol’s name, to be awarded annually to the NBA player who best exemplifies the commitment to service of the late center. For all the NBA’s slick promotions and marketing, the game at the center of its money making machine is embedded in the poorest neighborhoods of our nation. In the shadow of multi-million dollar arenas are some of the most poverty-stricken communities where residents may don the jersey of their home team even though the love is rarely reciprocated. Fans everywhere should remember Bol and demand a bit more from the players who are lucky enough to escape the grip of poverty through their exploits on the court.