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This combo image made from file photos shows Trayvon Martin, left, and George Zimmerman. On Saturday, July 13, 2013, jurors found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Martin in Sanford, Fla. The six-member, all-woman jury deliberated for more than 15 hours over two days before reaching their decision Saturday night.
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With most of the protests and violence in the aftermath of the George Zimmerman verdict now giving way to dialogue, every high-profile athlete with a heart and soul faces an elemental question:

What should I say and do?

Some will continue to sigh in exasperation, shake their heads and go back to their very comfortable lives.

A few will speak out, knowing that many believe they are ill-equipped to take a public stand or get behind a cause, that their role in our society is to shut up and play. This, of course, disregards our history. No social movement in 20th century America -- whether race, gender, religion, age or sexuality -- has advanced without the energy and efforts of prominent athletic figures.

This combo image made from file photos shows Trayvon Martin, left, and George Zimmerman. On Saturday, July 13, 2013, jurors found Zimmerman not guilty of
This combo image made from file photos shows Trayvon Martin, left, and George Zimmerman. On Saturday, July 13, 2013, jurors found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Martin in Sanford, Fla. The six-member, all-woman jury deliberated for more than 15 hours over two days before reaching their decision Saturday night. (AP Photos, File)

What would our nation look like without the contributions of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, without Bill Russell and Red Auerbach? Could we have evolved as far as we have without the diligence and principles and voices of Muhammad Ali and Al Davis and Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe?

Athlete-activists of yore risked getting stung by public backlash. Yet they often stood out front, even taking the lead in addressing inequality. They are symbols of progress.

Two generations later, athletes tend to back away from hot-button issues. Each of the five active athletes with whom I've discussed this matter in recent days requested their comments -- and there were many -- be "off the record" or unattributed.

Each also implied there will come a time when they will speak out.

Who in the world of sports will it be, and when?

One rationale for the reticence -- that we've moved beyond the civil rights battles of the 1960s and '70s -- would seem to be contradicted by the acquittal of Zimmerman in the profiling and shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida.

Another popular narrative in the 21st century is that athletes of color are quieter because they share in wealth once denied. They are commodities, multimillionaire corporations behind gated communities.

With the raw emotion of recent days lurching toward constructive dialogue, shouldn't there be a vocal stirring within the sports community? We could use passionate and unified appeals for justice, someone willing to address delicate issues with the wisdom and eloquence required to reach ears in an age where many are too self-involved to listen.

This touches them, too. Martin was in a gated community, the kind in which many sports figures live. As Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade asked via Twitter: "How do I explain this to my young boys?"

In the immediate aftermath of the Zimmerman trial, many athletes posted their outrage on Twitter. NFL receivers Roddy White (Atlanta) and Victor Cruz (New York Giants) posted incendiary tweets for which they later apologized. Cincinnati's James Harrison posed a scenario in which he'd pick a fight, lose, draw a concealed weapon, kill his opponent and see if he, too, will be acquitted.

That's outrage, and it's understood by any open mind.

Middleweight boxer Terrell Gausha, who draped himself in the flag during the 2012 Olympics in London, was so upset with the verdict, so disappointed with the American justice system, that he vows never again to wear the colors.

"How can I wear my stars and stripes proudly in a country where they make a big deal out of Michael Vick fighting dogs," he told TMZ, "but not a young, innocent black male's life?"

That's action. It's extreme, it's polarizing and it's risky. But the truly objective individual can, on some level, feel his pain.

What's needed is leadership. Many, if not most, locker rooms and clubhouses have a leader, a D-Wade or a Torii Hunter -- someone capable of assembling and arousing a group for a cause.

Is it too much to ask that the cause be bigger than a game?

"The problem is that most players today -- black and white -- expressing themselves on any matter with racial undertones has to be very careful about how they say it," said Dave Stewart, the retired A's pitcher who now serves as a player agent. "Some of them don't say anything. There are unwritten rules about what you should and shouldn't say, and everybody's aware of that.

"The guys who do speak up tend to be the older guys who are toward the end of their careers. They're secure financially and professionally, not worried about where their next paycheck might come from."

I recently attended a dinner ceremony at which the keynote speaker was NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas. He was obtaining his master's degree at Cal and took a few moments to lament the lack of activism, particularly among athletes of color.

He referenced the "radicals" of yesteryear and made indirect acknowledgment of individuals who stood up and made a difference. It was an impassioned plea for young athletes of color to become educated and aware, to embrace sociopolitical conversation.

It was necessary in 1963. Now, 50 years and many laws later, it's still needed.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/1montepoole.