On the very day Major League Baseball is set to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, it's sad that everything he stood for and represented is best represented by the outspoken, articulate women of the Rutgers University basketball team instead of the majority of multimillionaire professional athletes still too petrified to utter their own names without written permission.

As we will learn today, if we haven't already, Robinson wasn't just a great player Branch Rickey couldn't pass on. Nor was he the typical pawn as his substance derived from something other than his game.

Robinson was the right man at the right time - possessing a game worthy of major-league membership, a temperament capable of absorbing the venom mercilessly directed at him, and a conscience worthy of the pristine legacy he left behind.

So what does it say about this world when female college athletes appear bolder in speaking out than the very professionals our society has the audacity to plaster with role-model status?

This week was both a cause for celebration and a call to arms, a time to laud the Rutgers women but also to challenge today's athletes for their ways. Cringe all you want at Don Imus' calling the Scarlet Knights "nappy-headed ho's." But know that these women at Rutgers could have done nothing. They spoke out. They took a stand. So now it's time to ask: Why is this so foreign in sports today?

Why was Michael Jordan so timid so often despite his ability to make a difference? Why are LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and so many others encouraged to do the same? Why can the same be said of everyone from Peyton Manning to Tom Brady? From Dwight Howard to Steve Nash? From Derek Jeter to Albert Pujols?

"These are different times we live in," said Monte Irvin, a Negro league Hall of Famer who went into the majors with the New York Giants in 1949. "Back then, we all knew Jackie was the right man at the right time. He had the temperament to deal with a lot of the hate coming his way. He had to shut up initially, but eventually he would speak out and would never stop. Everyone couldn't deal with what Jackie dealt with back then. But he certainly had to deal with more than folks have to deal with now. Why people aren't more outspoken sometimes, I don't know."

We should all care, though, if these athletes are ever going to materialize into the role models we want them to be.

America talks a good game, but there's a reason few athletes joined in the fray to decry Imus' rhetoric and call for his dismissal. Money begets more money, which matters significantly with careers that come to a halt in one's mid-30s - if you're lucky. The objective is always to make as much money as you can while you can, and being outspoken jeopardizes that reality.

Madison Avenue is particular about whom it markets and promotes, and speaking out about anything from Imus to ethnic issues or political agendas doesn't lend toward generating more marketing opportunities.

"There's a reason Peyton Manning is the face of the National Football League," one league executive has continuously told me throughout the years. "You want someone who can play, who gets the fact that America doesn't want its feathers ruffled. Athletes are here to entertain without rocking the boat, to be fun-loving, pleasant and nothing else.

"There are different ways to make you pay when you don't comply, particularly for those who care about getting paid and very little else."

For years, it almost begged the question as to what today's athletes would have been like in 1947. How would they have fared against oppression, of being told where they could eat or were not allowed to sleep, of having racial epithets spewed in their direction in public with little to no recourse outside of their own resolve?

Most of us probably think that no one would measure up in this day and time.

We're right. No one does measure up. But the Rutgers women definitely pointed us in the right direction.

They spoke their minds to a nation, and in doing so left the hostility and retaliation to others.

There is no evidence they did this to raise a nation's conscience, to remind us all what Jackie Robinson did for us. But they did something more than just wear his No. 42 shirt.

It's not like we're used to seeing this from our athletes.

Contact columnist Stephen A. Smith at 215-854-5846 or ssmith@phillynews.com.