Stick to sports. Stick to sports. Time and time again, those three words are issued quickly and vehemently to athletes and sports media. Stick to sports. Don’t mix sports and politics. Shut up and Dribble.
Colin Kaepernick and Megan Rapinoe are two of the most polarizing athletes in recent memory. When politics are brought into sports, it’s often met with backlash. Sports are meant to be a break from our daily lives. People watch sports to escape the nonsense of our country. They turn on ESPN and Fox Sports, not MSNBC and Fox News. Politics and sports just don’t mix. Right?
Not so fast. Politics and sports have been intertwined for some time. The introduction of the modern Olympic games were meant to bring countries together. Countries would learn to compete together, work together, and harmonize.
It’s not always been like that, but those were the original intentions. Even Nelson Mandela utilized the 1995 Rugby World Cup to unify the country.
Sports can become so much more than just the game. That’s why athletes like Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Muhammad Ali, Cathy Freeman, and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf took political stances in their time. Even at the detriment of their careers, they stood strong in the face of adversity.
A Global Stage with Media Coverage
Sports are on the world stage. It’s too easy to maximize the smallest of details. For example, let’s say an athlete has a photoshoot. This athlete is then asked — between shots — about something controversial. After the response, it’s publicized by the media and ready for the backlash.
The thing is, media, sports and politics are intertwined. Athletes, unless they go full Kawhi Leonard, are largely available for their opinions.
Ask yourself this: What gets more views or clicks?
- A story about how Tom Brady works out each offseason, watches film and how he plays the game OR
- A story about Tom Brady wearing a #blacklivesmatter shirt to practice (this has not actually happened)
We all know which would be publicized. Whether or not their political actions are intentional, people will still publish them as such. So, if every action an athlete does or a word she says has the chance to go viral, might as well lean into it.
Because on this world stage and easy platform, the theatre of sports is almost too easy to fall prey to. Athletes have a variety of ways to introduce politics into their sporting lives: social media, clothing, physical gestures, press conferences, celebrations and more. It’s a simple step to diverge from the “stick to sports” mantra. The world is at their fingertips. All they have to do is hit send.
Becoming More than Just an Athlete: Sports and Politics
The Blink of an Eye
The career of an athlete is a fleeting one. A single injury can derail the best. Athletic careers, for the most part (looking at you Tom Brady), are very short. Knowing this, athletes want to utilize the few moments they have. With urgency, athletes will do everything they can to make the most money and win the most championships.
However, they also get a chance to go beyond their sport. To become greater than the sum of their parts and not just stick to sports. It’s not just about the game. Athletes are afforded opportunities to maximize their reach. They can spark change in their communities, states, and countries. Nonetheless, they are often ridiculed for their roles in shaping the world outside of sports.
Would it be less controversial if every athlete just volunteered their time or money at a soup kitchen, children’s hospital or inner-city youth program?
Of course. Who wouldn’t want that? The athlete descends from their stardom to aid those less than them. It’s poetic. Athletes running football camps in the summer, donating money to relief work or buying toys for children around Christmas. Those are all beautiful moments and should be praised every time.
But here’s the thing. Anyone can do that. Every one of us is capable of donating our time or money to aid our communities. Do we all have millions of dollars to donate? Of course not. But there are certainly millions of us that could donate dollars. At the same time, many of these athletes spend more time crafting their careers than the average person. So their time is also less available than the general public. Most of us don’t volunteer more than once (if at all) a year. Yet, we want the athlete to do what we don’t want to.
It’s Only a Problem When It Goes Against Opinion
Underlying this is a more subversive idea: athletes can do what they want as long as it fits in the fanbase’s frame of acceptable conduct. The main backlash of politics and sports comes when there is disagreement.
Who wants to disagree with helping bring joy to children with cancer or cleats to impoverished youth? Rarely a soul. But bring up racism, diversity, pay inequality or war politics, and it’s all over.
Could Colin Kaepernick have chosen an easier path to take? Definitely. Why didn’t he just stick to sports? Knowing full-well the backlash he would ensue, Kaepernick understood the impact of the global stage. Because of this sports theatre we consume on a daily basis, athletes have incredible power. So many avoid the news, headlines, and politics because of how divisive and polarizing it can be. Work your job, watch your sports, avoid the world. That’s the simplicity many want. It’s easier to live in bliss.
Because of this, athletes can bring clarity, light and build momentum. Think of how many movements have hit their peak velocity because of athletes. Just the conversations alone surrounding sports-politics create a space for change. Athletes are needed for sports. And political athletes are needed to better the world around us. They have the smallest of moments in the spotlight to positively impact the world around them.
Politics and Sports Mix with a Cost
Even to those who think sports and politics shouldn’t mix, they can take solace in the fact that many athletes are punished for their politics. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were suspended from the US Team and scorned as traitors for raising a black-power fist. Jared Cook, Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey, Chris Givens, and Tavon Austin were ridiculed for their “hands-up” gesture. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was briefly suspended and mildly blackballed after sitting during the national anthem. Two decades later, Colin Kaepernick faced the same blackballing. Muhammad Ali lost three and a half years of his prime boxing career because of his opposition to the Vietnam War.
Understanding that, athletes who become political should garner additional praise. Their actions are not easy. They take the path less traveled, choosing friction instead of going with the flow. But, because of incredible strength and courage from countless athletes, the space for true change is maximized. So no, athletes and media shouldn’t just “stick to sports”.