“We honor what we value,” goes the old saying. In our hedonistic culture we value most those who can put a ball in a hole. We ignore those who save lives through civic action.
The sports champions – golf, basketball, football, and baseball – receive riches and accolades from the masses. They are inducted into “Halls of Fame” and are the subjects of biographies, and documentary and feature films. As for the mass life-savers –few even know their names, much less their dramatic victories against overwhelming odds.
I was reminded of this contrast by a major New York Times Sports feature on Tiger Woods and his comeback win in the 2019 Masters Tournament, which was watched breathlessly by millions of golf fans around the world. Praises poured in on social media and many articles, features, and editorials covered every nuance of this golf match.
Barack Obama tweeted, “To come back and win the Masters after all the highs and lows is a testament to excellence, grit, and determination.”
What about the excellence, grit and determination of economist James Love? In the midst of the horrendous HIV epidemic, Love brilliantly organized, argued, wrote, and traveled the world before he found Dr. Yusuf Hamied and Cipla, an Indian company that took down Big Pharma’s $10,000 price for HIV drugs per African patient per year to $300 per patient. Neither Love nor his allies William Haddad and Robert Weissman were the subjects of features in major media outlets.
Others in the unsung circle of self-motivated stalwarts are David Zwick, Clarence Ditlow, Dr. Sidney Wolfe, and Joan Claybrook. Zwick helped write the Clean Water Act of 1972 and then started Clean Water Action which canvassed tens of millions of homes, distributing materials sparking local citizen action and nationally lobbying against water pollution for over four decades.
Engineer and lawyer Clarence Ditlow ran the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, DC and over forty years caused the recall of millions of defective cars. He also got the states to enact “lemon laws” to give voice to new car owners getting justice when their new car turned out to be “lemons.” Over roughly the same time span Joan Claybrook repeatedly blocked the auto-giants’ constant efforts to weaken or stop federal safety regulation that protected motorists.
As for Dr. Wolfe, with his small team, he produced three major books: Worst Pills Best Pills, Pills That Don’t Work: A Consumers’ and Doctors’ Guide to Over 600 Prescription Drugs That Lack Evidence of Effectiveness, and Over the Counter Pills That Don’t Work reaching millions of consumers through mass audience outlets such as the Phil Donahue Show. Dr. Wolfe also persistently pushed the FDA and drug companies to remove hundreds of ineffective and/or dangerous drugs from the market, thus preventing health-threatening side-effects and saving consumers billions of dollars. That’s just a few of the successes of Dr. Wolfe’s Public Citizen Health Research Group.
In 1971 three scientists spun off from our organization to start the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Still turning its pistons nearly 50 years later, its long-time leader Dr. Michael Jacobson went after the junk food/drink industry and the deadly amount of high salt, high fat, and high sugar content in processed foods with scientific rigor and persistence. CSPI publishes the very popular health newsletter Nutrition Action and uses litigation and regulatory interventions to educate the public. CSPI arguably changed the nutritional habits of millions of people and exposed the slick and deceptive ads and crude direct marketing to children by the fast food chains and the cereal manufacturers. These companies are heavily responsible for the childhood obesity epidemic and its ongoing malignant health consequences.
Then there are Karen Ferguson and Karen Friedman running the Pension Rights Center in Washington, DC. They provide members of Congress and labor unions with technical advice on pension policy, inform the press, and help thousands of pensioners who are being ripped off by employers. Only trillions of dollars are at stake.
For these and many other long-term fighters for justice up against cruel or reckless corporations and their political toadies, there are few accolades, almost no recognition, and no citizen Hall of Fame. (See breakingthroughpower.org)
It is time for foundations or the enlightened super rich to start an annual “Citizen Academy Awards” to correct this imbalance of recognition and offer the mass media some inspiring content. This big-time dramatic event would elevate our priorities as a society and showcase motivating role models for our youngsters. Perhaps Barack Obama could be the first MC for this authentic reality event.
To put the spectator mania for professional sports in perspective, we can listen to the words of the great all-round Hall of Fame superstar, the late Al Kaline of the Detroit Tigers. At his peak in the nineteen sixties, he told New York Times reporter Ira Berkow:
‘Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing, if I’ve wasted my time all these years,’ he told me, his eyes thoughtful. ‘And sometimes I think I have. I would like to have more to contribute to society. I don’t know, maybe a doctor. Something where you really play an important part in people’s lives.’
Al Kaline was one humble, great athlete, compared, with some luminous exceptions, to the “me, me, me” narcissism of too many sports stars today. Sports superstars could easily direct more support and attention to those little recognized citizen advocates who protect the serious necessities of life on shoe-string budgets.
Moreover, in these critical times the selfless dedication of the nurses, doctors, grocery store clerks, postal workers activists, sanitation laborers, and other truly essential workers should spark long-overdue recognition of these valiant heroes and their critical contributions to our lives beyond the stage or stadium. ESPN has just broadcast a ten-part series about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bills’ triumphant years of putting balls in holes for championships. Someday a network may produce a ten-part series on how citizen leaders historically built the justice safeguards that benefit us all. We should make it happen as owners of our public airwaves.