DETROITDwyane Wade, LeBron James, and the Miami Heat made the first major statement about the Trayvon Martin case last Friday afternoon, marking a stark shift from the aloof attitudes typically associated with professional athletes. For decades, pro athletes have often been criticized for refusing to take political and social stances so as not to endanger their endorsement deals, but for Wade and James it was different.

“I’m a father,” Wade said last Friday after the Heat’s 88-73 win over the Detroit Pistons. “It’s support of the tragic thing that has taken place. No matter what color, race, we’re all fathers.”

The Heat’s hoodie photo, which was taken hours before Friday’s game, has already drawn comparisons to the iconic “Black Power” stance taken by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics. The picture was initially Wade’s idea, and was tweeted by LeBron James.

After the Heat’s stand on Friday night in Detroit — the league’s dress code policy prohibited them from wearing hoodies during pregame warm-ups — other teams quickly followed suit by speaking out.

“I don’t feel like it’s right,” Portland Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge said Saturday, “for somebody to be able shoot a kid who has a hood on with no logical reason — he didn’t have any weapons, he wasn’t in a neighborhood that was out of his league — that’s really unacceptable and for the guy to actually get off without charges, that’s even worse.”

Jamal Crawford, Aldridge’s teammate, added: “I don’t think people necessarily understand that there’s no rewind button on life. I’ve seen the Miami Heat players wear their hoodies and I’ve seen reporters doing interviews with hoodies on, and it’s good because we all need to be together.”

Other NBA stars, such as New York’s Amar’e Stoudemire, who is from central Florida, and Carmelo Anthony took to Twitter to express their feelings about Martin, each wearing hoods in their avatars. Cleveland Cavaliers’ guard Anthony Parker was much more blunt with his feelings.

“Staying away from wearing hoodies in gated communities here in Orlando,” Parker tweeted last Thursday. “Don’t want any more victims of ‘self defense’” Parker later said that the judge and jury should be the ones to decide self-defense, instead of the police. Numerous pro athletes are wearing hoodies with “I Am Trayvon Martin” on the front, as well as following tweets with the hashtags #IAmTrayvonMartin and #JusticeforTrayvon.

The NBA Players Association took the nearly unprecedented step of releasing a statement offering condolences to the Martin family, took the Sanford Police Department to task for their handling of the investigation, and called for the full resignation of Police Chief Bill Lee:

“The NBPA is saddened and horrified by the tragic murder of Mr. Martin and joins in the chorus of calls from across the nation for the prompt arrest of George Zimmerman,” the statement said. “The NBPA also calls for the permanent resignation of Sanford Chief of Police Bill Lee and a full review of the Sanford Police Department, for dereliction of duty and racial bias in this matter and others. Their silence in the face of this injustice is reprehensible and they cannot be trusted to safe guard the citizens of the Sanford community equally.

“The NBPA seeks to ensure that Trayvon Martin’s murder not go unpunished and the elimination of the injustices suffered by the innocent.”

On Monday, the NFL Players Association followed suit with a similar statement of solidarity. In their statement, newly elected NFLPA president Domonique Foxworth and Assistant Executive Director of External Affairs George Atallah both appeared wearing hooded sweatshirts.

“The NFL Players Association offers its sincere condolences to the family and loved ones of Trayvon Martin,” Foxworth said. “The community of NFL players stands together as one team against any form of injustice.”

NFL stars Ray Lewis, whose three sons live in Sanford, and Santonio Holmes of the New York Jets were part of a rally in Sanford, along with Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, and members of the ACLU. The Sanford City council also met for the first time since giving a vote of no confidence to Lee last week.

In recent years, professional athletes have been heavily criticized for their lack of a stance on pressing social issues. Only in the last few years have pro athletes taken more political stances and endorsed presidential candidates.This is far cry from Michael Jordan’s disputed but oft-quoted “Republicans buy shoes, too” response to being asked why he refused to endorse North Carolina Democrat Harvey Gantt in his 1990 U.S. Senate campaign against Jesse Helms. In 1996, Jordan also refused to speak against Nike, which makes his Air Jordan merchandise, for their usage of child labor overseas.

Pro athletes were far more pro-active during the civil rights movement, often with harsh consequences. Legendary athletes Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Lew Alcindor (a.k.a. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Bobby Mitchell and others stood by Muhammad Ali and his refusal to serve in Vietnam in 1967. Ali’s stance led to him being stripped of his World Heavyweight Championship and his four-year ban from boxing.

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In 1968, Smith and Carlos’ protest in Mexico City led to their banishment from the Olympic Village for violating the Olympics’ stance of remaining apolitical. They were also met with heavy criticism in the U.S. and their families received numerous death threats.

Not all protests were met with negative consequences. In 1965, the American Football League was set to play its annual All-Star Game in New Orleans. However, after the black players were intentionally stranded at the airport upon arrival, and were later refused service by hotels and businesses, black and white players led a successful boycott — the first of its kind against an entire city — that got the game moved to Houston.

The startling reaction to the Martin case has struck a particular chord with professional athletes, largely due to so many of them being fathers. They feel that they, like many others, could have lost their child or possibly been a victim themselves.

“It almost brought me to tears,” former MLB star Gary Sheffield told ESPN’s Jemele Hill. Sheffield played 21 Major League seasons with the Brewers, Padres, Braves, Dodgers, Tigers, Yankees, and Mets. “When you’ve got sons and you hear about stuff like this, it frightens you. If my kids walk out of this house, they might not come back.”

Sheffield also told Hill that he has warned his sons about how to deal with police officers when they are pulled over. “I tell them, ‘When someone approaches, tell them your name and where you live, but don’t ever get into ‘Why did you stop me?’ or ‘Why did you pull me over?’ Leave that to me.’”

With more rallies spreading out across the country — a large rally was also held in Detroit on Monday evening — the reactions are showing that there is a more evident change in the attitudes of professional athletes, who, under the increased reach and access of social media, are expected to speak their minds and take a stand more than ever before.

“When you think about what that family’s going through, it hits you hard and it hurts your heart to think about it,” Dwyane Wade said, “Just anything you can do, obviously we can’t bring him back, but anything you can do to get behind and support is what we’re doing.

“The only thing we wanted to do was shed light. This is not just something that is happening in this community. This is something that is happening worldwide. We just want to make sure justice is served.”

Follow Jay Scott Smith on Twitter at @JayScottSmith