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Cause Célèbre

How NBA star Ira Newble became a Darfur activist

Talking with sports writers about professional athletes, and NBA players in particular, has been an eye-opener for me. Their disappointment with these gifted young men--nearly all in their twenties and early thirties--is palpable. Not in their physical prowess, of course, but over their lack of interest in anything but themselves and their salaries. Which is why whenever they do something off the court worthy of note, it's headline news. So it was that Ira Newble, reserve small forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers, became, in sports pages around the country, the most celebrated basketball player in America.

And rightly so. Newble has fashioned of twelve Cavalier teammates a "dream team of conscience"--professional athletes from around the world who've all signed a powerful letter to the Chinese government concerning its support for Sudan in its ongoing genocide in Darfur:

We, as basketball players in the NBA and as potential athletes in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, cannot look on with indifference to the massive human suffering and destruction that continue in the Darfur region of Sudan. Ethnically-targeted human destruction of Darfur's African tribal populations has entered its fifth year, and still the world has not responded--has not provided protection for millions of vulnerable civilians or for the world's largest and most endangered humanitarian operation.

China cannot be a legitimate host to the premiere international event in the sporting world--the Summer Olympic Games--while it remains complicit in the terrible suffering and destruction that continues to this day.

Published in May, the origins of this letter go back to this past March, when Newble happened to read an article about my work on Darfur in USA Today. On the road, no doubt with many more interesting opportunities at hand, Newble took note of the article and sent me an e-mail expressing an interest in getting involved. Given the huge popularity of basketball in China, I suggested that a letter to Beijing's leaders from some of the NBA's stars might prove an effective way to raise awareness about China's role in perpetrating the genocide in Darfur. There were few other steps from our first communication to his remarkable open letter.

It's been an interesting experience to have a professional athlete reach out to me. None ever had before, and it never occurred to me that one might. Celebrating athletes was always a one-way street for me (focused most intensely on my boyhood hero, Sandy Koufax). I met Newble in person for the first time this month on the eve of the Cavaliers' fourth (and, alas, concluding) game of the NBA Finals. The next night, before the game, we gathered together with a group of about 15 southern Sudanese "lost boys," primarily young Dinka men from Bahr el-Ghazal Province, whom Ira was hosting. As it happened, I'd either traveled to or flown over the villages and towns of origin of every one of these young men, something that seemed thoroughly astonishing to them.

Newble and I don't have much in common in our journeys to Darfur advocacy. Mine has involved eight years of research on Sudan, travel to the region, and work in the trenches of advocacy, while his was more serendipitous, an outgrowth of his own personal morality and determination not to exist solely within the NBA's bubble. But Newble's father was part of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and this certainly helped define Newble's sense of himself and his obligations. His father continues to loom large in his life and his decisions, and he was certainly proud when Newble declared of the genocide in Darfur during a recent interview, "It's so much bigger than basketball, bigger than sports, and it's bigger than the money." Sentiments I know are heartfelt on Newble's part, however unusual sports writers may find them.

To all this there will be the familiar sniggers. Why can't Americans respond effectively to serious foreign policy issues without involvement by celebrities, whether from the sports or entertainment worlds? Why should Ira Newble have a voice that matters if the issue really is "so much bigger than basketball"? I'll be the first to say that I wish it were otherwise, that we lived in a political culture in which the driving force was always a broadly informed electorate placing concerted moral pressure on policymakers to do what is truly in our national interest--and that "national interest" might be conceived in terms richer and more comprehensive than the withered realpolitik of the Bush administration. But I don't hope to live so long.

And one can't help but wonder, given American political culture at present, what the effect of a voice such as Newble's might have been if heard during the 22 years of north/south conflict in Sudan, during which some 2.5 million people lost their lives and as many as 5 million human beings were displaced from their homes. In 1998, Doctors Without Borders declared that the humanitarian crisis growing out of this war was "the most under-reported in the world." When The New Yorker bucked the trend and published a superb piece of reportage about the conflict, it did so under the simple title "The Invisible War."

Ending a grim genocide by attrition in Darfur is not the responsibility of people like Ira Newble; but nor should anyone sniff contemptuously at efforts by professional athletes who decide that they will use their claim upon public attention to highlight human suffering and destruction in the world. When such athletes are as intelligent, committed, and generous of spirit as Newble, then the real applause should begin.

By Eric Reeves