Let them speak: why “stick to sports” advocates are misguided

Graphic Courtesy of Max Freedman

In this day and age, everything is political. It is damn near impossible to say anything without planting yourself firmly on one of two incredibly-far-apart sides, each associated with two vastly different realities. The number of voters who express opinions consistently aligned with one party has doubled in the past two decades, and this consolidation within the two main parties has made it so that ideological overlap between them has diminished remarkably: Whereas 26 years ago, the median Democrat fell to the left of 64 percent of Republicans and the median Republican fell to the right of 70 percent of Democrats, those numbers shifted to 92 and 94 percent by 2014, respectively, and the divide has likely only grown since. 

Due to this increasing partisanship and partisan-inspired hatred, we have become so attuned to everything that we say because we are terrified of people on our side even thinking that we might dare agree with something the other side has to say. 

So, athletes couldn’t be apolitical even if they tried. Yet, many coaches and owners still argue that they should try; they should stick to sports because they were hired to play, first and foremost. It is a privilege, they might say, to be able to play a game for a living. But who are these executives to make such an argument? Any claim that athletes are contractually obligated to abstain from political discourse would be ambiguous at best. Asking athletes to do so is unjustified and hypocritical.

Take Tommy Tuberville for instance. The former Auburn University head football coach is looking increasingly likely to unseat Doug Jones in Alabama’s senate election. Why is it that fans can allow for a man in sports with no political experience to espouse such unfounded beliefs as birtherism, but won’t listen to his players—many of whom have much sounder minds if you ask me—when they express their opinions?

Well, Alabama is a deep red state, and along with hyper-partisanship comes an increased vulnerability to confirmation bias, or the tendency to hone in on information that aligns with prior (political) beliefs and eschew information that doesn’t. Given the preconceived notions of Republicans in a country driven to hate by an unrelenting racist demagogue, it stands within reason that many Alabamians would allow for a white male former coach and player endorsed by that same racist demagogue to represent them in federal government, but resort to arguments such as “They should stick to sports” in order to silence athletes belonging to racial, ethnic and religious minorities, attempting to rob them of a platform that they only achieved after overcoming an obscene amount of obstacles put in place by our broken socioeconomic systems in the first place. 

Donald Trump relegated his version of the “stick to sports” argument to anything that happens within a stadium, saying “Once you leave…go and do whatever you want to do. Run for office, do whatever.” If he stuck to this proposition, there might have been room for him to argue against in-game player protests during the national anthem but in favor of Tuberville’s political aspirations and beliefs. Even putting aside the question of why the anthem, an inherently political song, was brought into sports in the first place more than a century ago (among other patriotic songs), Trump undercut his own argument, as he is wont to do, with hypocrisy. As usual, standards only apply to his adversaries, and as soon as he and his allies need to go against them, they cease to exist. So, naturally, when it behooved him and his political interests to listen to athletes regarding in-stadium actions, that’s just what he did. In August, after many colleges had cancelled fall sports due to COVID-19 and the rest were mulling it over, Trump embraced athletes who were spreading the hashtag #WeWantToPlay on social media. 

A peaceful protest is deemed “disgraceful,” and the athletes who partake, belonging to minority groups and begging the police to stop killing them, are labeled “sons of bitches.” But when a white athlete lobbies for a return to sport, risking the health of his entire team and each player’s community, he is considered “hard-working.” It is clear what is really at work here: an obvious double standard rooted in racism. 

Part of the burden that comes with having a platform is that your every move is scrutinized. It is unreasonable in the polarized environment that we find ourselves to expect someone with such a platform to be able to abstain entirely from political talk and action. Even if they tried, someone would be bound to spin something they said as political. So, why not let them use that platform to fight for something they believe in? To truly express themselves, rise above the endless spinning and interpreting of tabloids? Any logical argument against this proposal falls flat, and that’s because the real explanation behind the silencing of athletes is an entirely illogical one: that a lot of people in power disagree with what athletes, especially Black ones, have to say. As one of a few high-income areas in which minorities are well-represented and able (despite still facing more roadblocks than their white counterparts) to achieve the increasingly fleeting American Dream, it is crucial that we allow athletes access to the platform they deserve.

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