“Politics should stay out of sports.” This six-word phrase has been repeated thousands of times over the past two weeks in the wake of protests by players in the National Football League, which sparked outrage by those who believe that the demonstrations went against the military and threatened the great and holy institution of Sunday football. While many criticized the act of kneeling as a display of disrespect to those who serve, have served, or who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for the United States in uniform, the undertone of much of the opposition has been that politics should have no intersection with professional athletics. This debate is not unique to the past week or even to the 21st century. From Jackie Robinson to Jesse Owens to ESPN’s Jemele Hill, politics is inherently ingrained in the sphere of sports; athletes and sports media personalities should not only have the right but should also be encouraged to share their political beliefs in order to enact social change.
The platform that athletes have in today’s world is unprecedented. Even as the game was weather delayed, a total of 15.1 million viewers watched the Sept. 28 Thursday Night Football game between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears. The massive number of attentive viewers presents a very unique and incredible opportunity for athletes, more specifically black athletes, to shed light on pressing social issues. By kneeling during the anthem, these athletes are using this opportunity to shape the national conversation and draw attention to issues of policing and racial injustices.
Athletes like Colin Kaepernick are not the first to use sports as a platform for social change. Politics and sports have been intertwined for many decades. The 1936 Olympic games in Nazi Germany inherently became a political event when Owens and over a dozen other black athletes triumphed over German athletes to win a quarter of all US medals. Over thirty years later, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two American medal winners in the 1968 Olympic Games, wore black gloves and subsequently raised a fist during the national anthem to protest segregation and civil rights issues back home in the United States. Jackie Robinson shattered the segregated nature of Major League Baseball by becoming the first African American player in the MLB in 1947. Robinson had a significant effect on the civil rights movement and caused many to reevaluate not only segregation in professional athletics but also the discrimination against black Americans in the South. Kaepernick, Owen, Smith, Carlos, and Robinson make up only a small fraction of athletes who have connected sports with politics and social issues; from Billie Jean King to Muhammad Ali to Magic Johnson, countless athletes in varying fields of sports have used their platform to set the national agenda and conversation.
Executives in the major American sports leagues, especially Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA, and Rodger Goodell, commissioner of the NFL, need to recognize the inherently political nature of athletics. Silver recently released a statement that told players the league expects them to keep with the rule that all players must stand for the anthem. Silver, in this statement, missed an opportunity to show solidarity to the players—specifically the black athletes—in his league. Rather than focusing on the economic effects of protests on their leagues, commissioners should take a note from history and stand strong in showing their players that their political views are respected and will not be hindered by league policy.
Professional sports remain as one of the most notable and robust institutions, outside the government itself, in modern America. From athletes to sports-centered media, such as ESPN and Fox Sports, those in the wide realm of athletics should use this institution to push for greater social change. People often exclaim that sports bring people together like no other force; if this is true, what is the problem with athletes using this unifying force to bring together individuals to tackle issues like police brutality or racial profiling? George Bush used a perfectly-placed first pitch at a Yankees’ game to symbolize America’s unity and strength after the Sept. 11 attacks. Red Sox legend David Ortiz received well-earned praise for his moving and rallying speech after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. In these moments, people did not yell “Sports should be free of politics!” Why, then, do people scream this when NBA stars wear “We can’t breathe” shirts or take a knee? The answer rests in the focal points of the protests; the recent displays deal with the very divisive topic of race. Seventy-seven percent of individuals who watched the NFL in 2013 were white. This statistic is, in my assessment, the main reason why the outcry is so great against these recent NFL protests. The flag is used as a cop-out for those who don’t want to confront racial issues that might be uncomfortable to discuss. In this instance, “politics should stay out of sports” is code for “race issues should stay out of sports.”