IMHO: Politics and Sports Belong Together

Valley News Sports Editor
Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Politics and sports belong together. They’re fused at the hip. It’s always been that way, and it always will be.

It’s impossible to separate the two, and it’s a point missed by those who would seek isolation in the latter from the former. Look no further than the Colin Kaepernick debate and you’ll see what I mean.

Too many football fans who also regard themselves as “true patriots” are giddy at the notion that Kaepernick remains unemployed, even as some NFL teams go wanting for bona fide quarterback talent. Their argument goes something like this: The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback had the nerve to denigrate the nation and all things American by kneeling in protest during The Star-Spangled Banner last season. He doesn’t deserve a job.

They have a point. Just not a very sharp one.

I cherish freedom of speech and expression above all of the Bill of Rights’ guarantees. I have a privilege and responsibility to speak my mind, to challenge my leaders and to question everything; I don’t necessarily have to do it in a calm and reasoned tone, but the message is more likely to be absorbed if I do.

Freedom of speech has a price, of course. Say (or write, or sign, or sing, or shout, or tweet) something reprehensible, and consequences may — and should — follow. I suggest you Google “Milo Yiannopoulos” and “pedophilia” if your memory fails.

So, is taking a political stand in a sporting milieu appropriate? Absolutely.

The black-gloved, fist-raised, head-bowed salutes of American medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 remain among the most enduring of moments of when politics and sports merged. Nearly 50 years later, we’re still fighting the same battles over equality and fairness for all that led the two sprinters to take their stand in the first place.

Carlos paid a price. As he told London’s Telegraph newspaper last August, he couldn’t find work, his children were harassed in school and his wife eventually killed herself in the years after his political statement. That he made it in an Olympic stadium resonates more than it could have in any other situation.

To quote renowned media theorist Marshall McLuhan, “The medium is the message.”

You cannot fondly recall the Miracle on Ice without acknowledging your reaction to that U.S. victory recognized the sports-politics convergence. Plucky American underdogs? Check. Evil Soviet ice hockey machine? Check. That was no escape from the Cold War; it was the Cold War, played out on a frozen surface.

You cannot praise Muhummad Ali’s athletic grace and greatness without also recognizing his political beliefs viewed through a prism of sport. He lost nearly four years of his professional boxing career because of his refusal — on political grounds — to be drafted into a military conducting a war in Vietnam that he opposed. Every bout thereafter, every moment of his public life thereafter, should have reminded you of that.

You cannot metaphorically wrap yourself in an American flag every two years for the Olympics or every four years for a World Cup without admitting that, in doing so, you’re diving right into the ultimate mix of athletics and politics. You aren’t doing so because the competitor on the TV grew up in your neighborhood, although that could easily be the case around here. You’re doing it because sport is the easiest, simplest and most open manifestation of your loyalty to country, as right or wrong as it may be.

Politics is what’s keeping Colin Kaepernick out of an NFL training camp, and his own views aren’t the sole explanation. Of the league’s 31 owners (the Green Bay Packers are run by a board of directors), the vast majority are rich, white and male. Rich, white men are generally conservative — or at least imperious — in their politics. Such people don’t tolerate dissent, opposing points of view, different lifestyles, different religions, you name it. It’s not a stretch to envision a cadre of rich, white men uniting to teach an African-American employee — or ex-employee, as it were — a lesson.

Of course Kaepernick is being blackballed by the NFL. Sport, meet politics.

Agree or disagree with the means he chose if you wish, but Kaepernick has an absolute responsibility to use football as his platform to argue for social change. As repugnant as you might find his opinions or how he decided to express them, you fail the American test if you deny Kaepernick the right to speak his mind and to do so through sport.

Go back to high school civics class. Do not pass Go. Do not collect your lunch money.

In that Telegraph story, Carlos lamented the relative dearth of athlete activists today. Money dominates many of our games; sports figures fear the sponsorships they could lose or the playing opportunities that could dry up should they use their jobs to speak their minds.

I never want to see the politics-sport union end. I want to witness the bravery of a John Carlos, a Muhammad Ali, a Colin Kaepernick opining through sport if it gets us as a nation to reasonably debate what ails us and how to correct it.

So if the thought of politics poisoning your love of sports bothers you enough to require an escape, I have a place for you. It’s called Never Never Land.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.