One of the most repeated cliches in current American culture is “Stick to sports.” It is lobbed, most often, at athletes who speak out on social issues, but also at almost anyone who works in sports, including newspaper columnists. It was perhaps best summed up in February 2018 , when conservative TV talking-head Laura Ingraham said LeBron James should “shut up and dribble” after James was critical of President Trump and talked about some of the challenges he and other black athletes face in our society.
Here’s a simple fact. Sports and politics crossing paths is nothing new, although for a long time it seemed most political gestures in sports took place during the Olympics: the pulling of two Jewish sprinters from a relay during the 1936 Berlin Games, a move supposedly made in deference to Adolf Hitler; Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s black-gloved salute on the medal podium in Mexico City in 1968; and, most tragically, the slaying of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists during the Munich Games in 1972.
More and more nowadays, it has become impossible to separate politics from sports. In the past week, we have seen three more examples of why they often meet and, in some cases, must.
First came the Navy football team announcing it changed its motto/slogan for this season from “Load the Clip” to “Win the Day.” The initial slogan, selected by the team’s four captains, is an obvious reference to loading a weapon before going into battle. Other than confusing a war battle with a football game, the four players failed to understand that the Maryland region surrounding the Naval Academy is still recovering from two horrific events: the shooting deaths of five people in the newsroom of the Annapolis Capital Gazette a little more than 13 months ago, and a shooting in a Rite Aid warehouse three months later near Aberdeen in which three more were killed.
When a reporter from the Capital Gazette asked about the slogan, Navy moved quickly to change it. Coach Ken Niumatalolo met with the captains to explain that many would see the slogan as insensitive.
“It was a one-minute meeting,” Niumatalolo said. “They just said, ‘Coach, let’s change it.’ ”
Even the most ardent “stick to sports” advocates wouldn’t argue that Navy was wrong to acknowledge the world beyond the football field and correct its misstep.
Saturday night, during the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony, former defensive back Champ Bailey spoke eloquently on a subject similar to the one James had addressed: being a black man in this country.
“We say this to all our white friends,” Bailey began. “When we tell you about our fears, please listen. When we tell you that we fear for our kids, please listen. When we tell you there are many challenges we face because of the color of our skins, please listen. And please do not get caught up in how the message is delivered. Most of us are athletes, but we’re black men first. Understand this: The things that make us great on the field — like our size and our aggression — are the things that can get us killed off the field. I believe if we start listening, there’s no telling the progress we can make. If we can’t get our friends to listen, then no one will.”
No doubt some would have preferred if Bailey had stuck to thanking his family, teammates, coaches and friends — and talking about the great game of football.
Many feel uncomfortable when an athlete says something that might force them to think. Bailey’s message was direct: It isn’t easy to be a black man in this country, and he wished more people would listen. A lot of people simply don’t want to.
Finally, there was Philadelphia Union soccer player Alejandro Bedoya, who ran to a TV microphone after scoring the first goal in the Union’s 5-1 win Sunday night victory in Washington and said: “Congress, do something now. End gun violence. Let’s go!”
His spontaneous outburst came in the wake of two more mass shootings over the weekend: one in El Paso that killed 22 people, and a second in Dayton, Ohio, that killed nine.
After the game, Bedoya and Coach Jim Curtin had blunt words about gun violence — and the lack of gun control in this country.
“I’m not going to sit idly by and wait for things to happen 50 years from now,” said Bedoya, who has represented the United States more than 60 times in international play. “I want change now.”
Bedoya grew up 15 miles from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., where, in February 2018, a gunman killed 17 people, 14 of them students, and wounded 17 others. Bedoya has been a supporter of students from the school who have called for gun control legislation.
His final comment Sunday bears repeating: “I’m a human being before I’m an athlete.”
That pretty much says it all. When Colin Kaepernick began his campaign against police brutality by refusing to stand for the national anthem, many people, including Trump, screamed that he should leave the country. When other NFL players followed Kaepernick’s example, many football fans complained that the protesters were ruining their enjoyment of NFL games.
It’s also worth noting that on the weekend before the president’s “fire them” rant in Alabama in September 2017, six players knelt during the national anthem. That weekend, more than 200 knelt or stayed in the locker room during the anthem.
So were the players injecting politics into sports, or was it the other way around?
In supporting Bedoya, Curtin said: “A lot of people will tell me now and will tell [Bedoya] to shut up and stick to sports and all the stupid lines that come up. But it’s crazy in our country right now, and I think it needs to change as well.”
There will be plenty of rhetoric on gun control from the left and the right. Most of the criticism of athletes speaking up on political and social issues comes from the right, and much of it is racially charged: white political commentators and white sports fans who want athletes, many of them black, to stick to dribbling and stop taking away their enjoyment of the games with any sort of political protest.
I am often bombarded with “stick to sports” tweets when I speak up on political issues. My guess is if I criticized James, Kaepernick or Bailey, I’d hear very little of that.
Now, thanks to Bedoya, I have an answer: “I’m a human being before I’m a sportswriter.”
We’re all entitled to have opinions on issues that go beyond when Trent Williams might report to training camp or Max Scherzer might pitch again. The best possible answer when someone expresses an opinion you might disagree with is to do what Bailey asked: Listen. Then, and only then, do you deserve to have someone listen to your response.
“Stick to sports” isn’t an answer. It’s angry, pointless rhetoric. We’ve already got too much of that.