As we approach the restart to the NBA season and the belated start of the MLB season, American sports is at a tipping point. At one time, sports were seen as entertainment, a diversion for fans to get away from the trials of life. Sports used to be fun. Sports used to be unifying. There was something pure about sports. The games were fair. The playing fields were level. The rules applied to all. The rewards were earned equally. There was something refreshingly just about sports. You either won or you lost. You either performed or you didn’t. You cannot fake or hide in sports. The playing field is the ultimate proving ground. It reveals who you are. The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat.
But there is something sinister, something corrupting that has been creeping into sports for the last few years which is tainting the purity of the game and driving fans away. More and more players have been using the sports arena to make their political statements.
Sports used to be overwhelmingly apolitical. Sports would get involved in causes like breast cancer awareness or the United Way. They were causes not political agendas. We used to root for or against a player based on which team he or she played on, not because of their political positions.
The first overt political statement made by athletes was the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Two African-American track stars, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of the National Anthem on the podium at their medal ceremony, after winning the gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200-meters. They were supporting the black power movement of the 1960’s. More recently in 2016, Colin Kaepernick made a political statement by kneeling during the National Anthem in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. His political statement has been followed by other NFL players, and athletes from other sports.
This season, the NBA has approved of 29 “social justice” messages that can be displayed on the player’s jerseys. But this is not standing up for the free speech of the players. The fact there are only 29 pre-approved messages, it is the exact opposite of free speech. The players are not free to say whatever they want. Adam Silver is controlling the message. It is the same thing as the NFL telling their players they cannot kneel for the National Anthem. Both leagues are dictating to their players which political statements are allowed within the venue and which ones are not allowed. And these decisions are solely based on financial reasons. That is why the NBA is banning the message “Free Hong Kong”. That type of messaging could alienate China and cost the NBA hundreds of millions of dollars regardless of how virtuous the message is. If kneeling for the National Anthem gave the NFL a 15% increase in ticket sales, TV rating and merchandise sales as opposed to a 15% decrease, every owner and even the commissioner would be kneeling right along with the players.
The politicization of sports is driving fans away from the game without changing anyone’s political views. It only serves to fan the flames of the player’s ego and self-ascribed virtue. It costs fans a lot of money to attend a professional sporting event, and they want to watch the game, not hear the athletes’ political views. If they wanted to attend a political event, they would go to a rally or debate. All of the purity of sports, the unifying nature of sports is lost when politics are injected into sports.
The political gestures of the players feel like propaganda. Athletes using their status and exposure to millions of people to push one side of the issue without pushback or cross examination. Complex societal issues cannot be summed up or solved with a slogan or a gesture. Those are just ways to sway an uniformed populace. Real solutions come from real discussions, looking at an issue from multiple sides, getting into the weeds.
The NFL is now considering allowing players to wear the initials of people who were victims of police violence, or anti-police messages on their helmets. The NFL had always been very protective of its brand. It went to great lengths to prevent players from using the NFL shield and the NFL venue to promote personal messages or agendas. When NFL great Johnny Unitas, one of the players who brought the league into national prominence, passed away, another NFL great Peyton Manning wanted to pay a tribute to him by simply wearing a pair of black high-top cleats, the signature shoe of the great Unitas. The NFL claimed it was a violation of the dress code, no exceptions allowed. They threatened Manning with such a high fine that he relented and did not pay tribute to a man who helped make the NFL what it is today.
Not long after the tragedy on 9/11, the NFL started banning and fining players for wearing NYPD hats on the sidelines. MLB prohibited Mets and Yankees players from wearing NYPD and NYFD hats during their game on September 11, 2011, marking the 10th anniversary of the tragedy.
But this season, the NFL and MLB are allowing players to kneel for the National Anthem and disrespect the police, after previously fining players for paying tribute to the police officers who ran into the burning buildings on 9/11, laying down their lives to save others. If you’re looking for virtue in all this political madness, that is virtue, to lay your life down for another. But according to the NFL and MLB, players are not allowed to show respect for those heroic police officers, they can only show disrespect to other police officers.
The overt mingling of sports and politics always ends bad. Jimmy Carter’s boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics was a colossal mistake. It achieved no positive political result, and denied many United States athletes their only chance to compete in the Olympic Games.
Mixing of sports and politics is potentially dangerous. The 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany were tragically disrupted when members of a Palestinian terrorist group took nine Israeli athletes hostage, killing two of them. These Israelis were athletes, not political operatives. They were ambassadors of peace, in the spirit of fair play, and they lost their lives because they were used as pawns in some political conflict beyond their control.
The goal of the Olympic Games was for the nations of the world to put down their weapons and hostilities and compete in sporting events in the spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play to promote a more peaceful world. That’s what all sports should be.
Sports should remain apolitical. We should keep the game pure, keep it separate from the polluting aspect of politics. That does not mean that athletes should not speak out about important issues. There are many platforms on social media for athletes to voice their political views to be heard by millions, but there should be a high wall of separation between the actual game and politics.
In days gone by, athletes made political statements not with gestures or slogans but with their performances. Jesse Owens did not have to kneel or hold up a fist to make his political statement in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Owens simply did what he did best, perform. His 4 Gold Medal winning performance was the quintessential political statement against Hitler’s vision of Arian Racial superiority.
Joe Louis winning the World Heavyweight Boxing title in 1937 was a turning point for African-Americans. He was seen as America’s champion, revered by both black and white people alike. Louis followed up Jesse Owens statement against Hitler by knocking out German Champion Max Schmeling in the 1st round in 1938. And Jackie Robinson’s 1947 Rookie of the Year season was an ultimate political statement against the evils of racial segregation, and all he did was play ball.
Wilma Rudolph and Babe Didrikson’s Gold Medal performances in the Olympics articulated the meaning and purpose of the women’s rights movements as well as any speech or political statement could.
Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, and Jesse Owens were far ahead of the Civil Rights movement, and arguably they were its catalysts. They did more for civil rights and more to unify this country through their performances than all of the gestures and slogans we will be flooded with by all the present-day athletes combined.