Stick to sports.
It might be impossible to find one meme that captures the 2016 offseason for NFL writers or fans of NFL teams, but “stick to sports” could be the closest one. It seems as if athletes, the writers who cover them and the fans who follow both have become more politically vocal in the run-up to, and the aftermath of, the 2016 presidential election.
I’m no exception; I co-host an occasionally updating political podcast with Ben Natan, an Eagles writer for Bleeding Green Nation.
While these political discussions have galloped through the sports world, those very vocal fans have asked the athletes and sportswriters to “stick to sports” — meaning “stop talking politics.” It may be one thing if they were asked to stop talking about their favorite brands, food, places to travel or musical tastes, but the “stick to sports” mantra only applies when political preference is on the line — nothing else.
But there has been no recent turn to politics in the sporting world. The closest accurate statement may be “revival,” but it certainly didn’t start in 2016. Half a decade ago, we saw athletes taking political stands on police violence and before that… well…
Sports has a long history of being tied up in “politics” — a word that has often meant the workings of formal institutions of power, like Congress or the White House — but more appropriately means the manner in which our society is organized.
It doesn’t take long to see that the intersection of blackness and sports has been integral to the institution itself. More obviously, we remember Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson. With some coaxing, we also can quickly remember John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s black power salute in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City — one of the most enduring images of the 20th century.
That’s not surprising; sports are a product of culture. Culture and politics are two sides of the same coin, because culture is an emergent product of how societies are organized while politics embody the negotiating process for that organization.
The idea that sports should be independent from politics while occupying a commanding role in our culture is absurd. Our other cultural products are not immune to politics. We do not ask artists to “stick to art” or musicians to “stick to music” and the history of those mediums and their interaction with politics is long and famous.
Sports isn’t — and has never been — a distraction from our problems; sports only provide us with another lens to focus on what we choose to value. Military jets flying overhead before games aren’t inherent to football games so much as they are a decision to inject a part of our culture and values into a cultural product.
Football players league-wide have only been organized into sideline salutes to the flag since 2009 and the practice of playing the anthem before sporting events has waxed and waned over time, as technology has better-enabled anthem performances and the need for overt displays of patriotism has ebbed and flowed. There were more anthem salutes after World War II, for example, than before it.
Largely celebrated today for his brave stand, sprinter John Carlos and his family suffered for what he did. What makes stances like Carlos’ brave in the first place is what he risked. Carlos and Smith were worried that they would be shot in the open while they performed the salute, and received death threats upon their return home. Carlos lost his job while his kids were bullied at school. His wife took her own life, something Carlos believes is the result of FBI harassment.
Sports and politics are not separate.
Muhammad Ali’s very name was a political statement — a response to the racial politics of the volatile 1960s. His affiliation with the Nation of Islam isn’t merely religious; it is an explicitly political affiliation tied in with the religious and economic goals of the NOI, founded to “improve the spiritual, mental, social, and economic condition of African Americans in the United States and all of humanity.”
Ali recognized the connection between culture and politics intimately, and argued that “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me — black, confident, cocky.” Who we define as American — what parts of the population are a legitimate polity and what’s not — has been an essential part of political discourse. Nothing could be more political than determining what opinions should be held taboo and what should not be.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make opinions taboo, but it does mean we have to recognize that those questions are political because they determine how we can organize society and who can participate in that discussion.
The political impact Ali had on the United States is undeniable, and it is equally obvious that the impression he left on the American public was tied to his prominence as a sports figure. Ali ensured that every fight would be political not just in what many of them represented but in the very fact that announcers would have to say his name.
His famous denunciation of the Vietnam War and refusal to enter the Army were clear, overt examples of his participation in the larger political process.
Sports and politics are not separate.
Jackie Robinson’s example as a disruption of the normal order of sports was about formal integration into a league and that required adherence to respectability politics – something he hated doing. He was contractually forbidden from responding to players who would spit in his face and couldn’t respond to racial slurs with animosity.
A committed patriot and military veteran, Robinson supported the House Un-American Activities Committee’s now-maligned fight against an insidious, mostly-imagined internal communist threat. He lamented the Republican Party’s move away from its black base in the 1964 Republican convention for supporting Barry Goldwater, a conservative far-removed from the Republicans Robinson supported, and one who opposed the Civil Rights Act. Despite the significant role the former Dodger played in politics, his political participation after his baseball career often goes undiscussed.
That participation, often described as being a “militant, black Republican,” is complex and important, and his example is instructive when it comes to the history of two-party politics in the United States. Matthew Delmont in the Atlantic summarizes part of that history in an isolated look at that 1964 convention:
“During my life, I have had a few nightmares which happened to me while I was wide awake,” Robinson wrote in 1967. “One of them was the National Republican Convention in San Francisco, which produced the greatest disaster the Republican Party has ever known—Nominee Barry Goldwater.” Robinson, a loyal Republican who campaigned for Richard Nixon in 1960, was shocked and saddened by the racism and lack of civility he witnessed at the 1964 convention. As the historian Leah Wright Rigueur describes in The Loneliness of the Black Republican, black delegates were verbally assaulted and threatened with violence by Goldwater supporters. William Young, a Pennsylvania delegate, had his suit set on fire and was told to “keep in your own place” by his assailant. “They call you ‘nigger,’ push you and step on your feet,” New Jersey delegate George Fleming told the Associated Press. “I had to leave to keep my self-respect.”
Robinson went from supporting Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon in 1960, to helping organize an accountability organization for the GOP in 1964 in opposition to Barry Goldwater, to supporting Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968, in opposition to Nixon and the Republican Party.
Despite his patriotism and service, Robinson famously declared at the beginning of his autobiography that he could not salute the flag, nor stand and sing for the national anthem in 1972 before the World Series he was invited to in recognition of the 25th anniversary of the reintegration of baseball.
His journey from Republican to Democrat is emblematic of the shifts in party demographics that occurred in the American political sphere between the 1940s and 1970s and his role in politics was significant.
Sports and politics are not separate.
We also shouldn’t forget Jack Johnson, Willie O’Ree, Billie-Jean King, Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and many others who were overtly political in every era of sports.
Not only that, Abdul-Jabbar points out in a column for Time Magazine that governments are happy to use athletes as tools of foreign policy. The Cold War notoriously played out in the chess matches of Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, and Nixon used a series of table tennis matches to open up China. In 1980, 60 countries — including the United States — boycotted the Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union and 13 other countries retaliated by boycotting the 1984 Olympics. Incidentally, there’s a good argument that the 1984 Olympics led, hand-in-hand with other systemic and immediate factors, to the LA Race Riots in 1992.
36 years later, Afghanistan was banned from the Olympics because of their discrimination against women. Four years after that, their return to the Olympics was lauded as a victory for global women’s rights.
Nor is this current political controversy unique to football. Bruce Maxwell became the first Major League Baseball player to kneel during the anthem, something that is groundbreaking in part because baseball players might not feel comfortable with open protest.
Chris Archer, one of 62 black players on an opening-day MLB roster, argued as much when discussing how it’s inherently more difficult in a league that isn’t predominantly black. Adam Jones, an all-star center fielder for the Baltimore Orioles said the same thing.
A number of NBA players have thrown their hat in the ring, including prominent stars like Lebron James and former league MVPs Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson.
It’s not unique to the 2016 and 2017 NFL seasons. The Minnesota Lynx wore shirts honoring Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two victims of police shootings in 2014. Later that year, we saw a good number of NFL players protest police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri and Cleveland, Ohio. That same year, Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose wore a shirt bearing the words, “I Can’t Breathe,” the last words of Eric Garner before he was choked to death by a New York City police officer. In 2012, the Miami Heat wore hoodies to protest the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman.
The University of Missouri’s football team boycotted playing football in 2015 to protest the president of the university’s response to allegations of racism on campus and the months-long fallout, which included several rallies as well as a number of other documented allegations of racism that included a swastika smeared on a bathroom wall.
Let’s not forget Chris Kluwe, Brendon Ayanbadejo, Scott Fujita or Matt Birk’s attempts to influence the debate surrounding same-sex marriage and the larger discussion of LGBT rights. Michael Sam’s inclusion in the 2014 NFL draft is part of that larger political discussion about taboo, exclusion and formal equality. Olympic athletes took on risks protesting Russia’s dangerous LGBT laws prior to the Sochi Olympics.
It’s not as if athlete activism was rampant from the 1940s to the 1980s and completely died before rearing its head in the 2010s—though rising revenues and the appeal of endorsements did stymie the flow.
The 1991-92 Chicago Bulls featured one of the most politically outspoken athletes of all time, Craig Hodges, who criticized fellow athletes for doing little for communities and showed up to the White House in 1992 in a dashiki and a letter in hand for president George H. W. Bush about racial inequality.
The NFL moved the 1993 Super Bowl out of Arizona because the state refused to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Dennis Rodman, his apparently frequent visits to North Korea aside, has lived an existence that has constantly interrogated the divide between markers of feminine and masculine identity — an overt stance about the way we denote gender in society, and therefore how we choose to organize it. In other words, Rodman was intensely political and marking the importance of difference every time he bullied a guard in the lane or boxed out an opposing forward for a rebound.
Athletes were asked to do more, not less, in response to the LA race riots.
John Elway is well known in American political circles as a Republican and often has to deny aspirations to run for office. Nevertheless, he donates and endorses various political causes throughout Colorado. He also used the official Broncos logo when endorsing Neal Gorsuch for the Supreme Court, though he technically did not use his team’s letterhead.
Tom Brady wasn’t shy about his “Make America Great Again” hat appearing visibly in his locker, and Karl Malone is a board member of the NRA. There’s little question that Tim Tebow used his visibility as an athlete for conservative political causes, appearing in a pro-life ad aired during the Super Bowl.
Fran Tarkenton gave a speech during the 2016 Republican National Convention to endorse President Donald Trump. Tim Thomas, a goalkeeper for the Stanley Cup-winning Boston Bruins, refused to visit President Barack Obama. So too did Matt Birk. Quarterback for the Los Angeles Chargers, Philip Rivers, endorsed Rick Santorum for president.
The laundry list of athletes engaged in political activism might be enough to convince someone that political engagement and sports notoriety is normal, but not that it is good.
It’s an unusual burden, asking those who have been elevated for their talent and skill to stop using their platforms for what they think is good. Not only that, the demands for expertise are rarely reflexive. As Abdul-Jabbar once again points out:
Despite the fact that I’ve been writing about politics longer than I played basketball, many of my critics begin their comments with, “Stick to basketball, Kareem.” But aside from having played basketball a couple decades ago, I am also a father, a businessman, an education advocate, a journalist, a charity organizer, a huge sports fan and an American. By dismissing someone’s opinions based on profession, such critics are also dismissing their own opinions as frivolous (“Stick to plumbing!” “Stick to tax dodging!” “Stick to proctology!”). Whose vocation makes them an expert on all social or political matters? As we’ve seen during the presidential campaign, even the candidates aren’t experts. Perhaps especially.
Every election cycle, we see some candidates lionized for their lack of political experience, and other demonized for a career in Washington. Barack Obama used this technique against Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries and Donald Trump did so again in the 2016 general election. It was a selling point for both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and a big part of Sarah Palin’s appeal.
We’ve even elected athletes to positions in Congress, from former Washington quarterback Heath Shuler to Pro Bowl lineman Jon Runyan and more: NBA All-Stars Bill Bradley and Kevin Johnson, Pro Football Hall of Famers Steve Largent and Alan Page and one of the most influential politician-athletes of all time, Jack Kemp—a seven-time AFL All-Star.
Celebrating athletes for disruptive political acts decades after the fact but refusing to embrace strident hope for change in the present is a regrettable, long-held tradition.
A common complaint for Colin Kaepernick and his protest — now spread league-wide, if in a somewhat diluted fashion — is that he’s chosen the “wrong forum” for his protesting, as if protesting must occur in an orderly fashion, though rarely does.
Some of the forum objections are about respect, others are about the appropriateness of protesting “on the job,” and still others are about merit.
Arguments about method have long been used to step over the conversation about the specific grievance being aired—so old that Martin Luther King Jr. warned those after him about that derailing tactic in one of his letters from a Birmingham Jail.
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Black Lives Matter activists have been criticized for blocking traffic, vulgarity, exposure to violence, protesting newspapers, school walk-outs, speeches at awards ceremonies and so on — in addition to sitting or kneeling during the anthem.
The Root goes into detail about how the requests for “more respectful” protest effectively closes off all avenues of protest, admonishing (sarcastically), that black people must not say the words “white,” or “black,” and must protest in a manner that is both invisible to the larger public but includes everyone, and it must be respectful to the following items:
flags that represent America, flags that represent traitors to America, monuments, names of buildings, statues, stained-glass windows, cats, American flags, 150-year-old songs, freedom of speech (but only their freedom of speech, not yours), bathrooms, dogs, the children (not children, but “the children”), the Founding Fathers, first responders, blue lives, religious freedom (Christian only), traffic and troops.
In fact, kneeling during the anthem was a compromise made by Kaepernick to Green Beret and Seattle Seahawk Nate Boyer, who asked Kaepernick to kneel as a sign of respect instead of sitting during the anthem.
“We sorta came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammates,” Boyer says. “Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect. When we’re on a patrol, you know, and we go into a security halt, we take a knee, and we pull security.”
Already having changed his method once, Kaepernick and his fellow protesters have still not been immune to criticisms about their method despite the fact that it undeniably draws eyeballs and creates discussion.
Many or all of the above criticisms were directed at the Civil Rights Movement, the queer rights movement, feminist movements and so on before many of them were justified by history.
The arguments about respect dominate the discussion, even though there’s clear evidence that modifying any protest still draws criticism of “disrespect.” When he was sitting it was disrespectful, and when he was kneeling it was disrespectful. The Dallas Cowboys were booed for kneeling for a half-second before the anthem ever started.
The idea that the flag itself is a symbol that uniquely represents military commitment is unusual by itself. Broad symbols like the bald eagle and the American flag are meant to represent the United States and its citizens or its ideals, and refocusing that symbol to exclusively represent military commitment undermines one of the greatest accomplishments of the American system: civilian control of the military.
The overall understanding of civil-military relations in the American system is that soldiers serve civilians, and though their actions and service garner respect, it does not require it.
If one of the most important accomplishments in American history is tied to civilian control of the military, broadly American symbols should not be used as stand-ins for military symbols.
The American military service does not have a monopoly on the meaning of America.
Not only that, the flag and the anthem can serve as unique flashpoints because those symbols are meant to represent the ideals of the United States but the United States often does not live up to them. Not paying homage to an American institution that represents freedom and equality when one doesn’t feel free or equal is a fairly common tradition within American protest; one of Frederick Douglass’ most famous speeches was titled, “What to the Slave is 4th of July?”
Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?
This isn’t an uncommon sentiment for black Americans (nor, of course, is it universal), and to feel unprotected by American institutions is reason enough not to provide those institutions with the same treatment as that by those who feels secured by institutions.
Lost in this debate about whether or not Kaepernick should stand for the flag is whether or not his feelings about whether the flag represents him are genuine.
If his feelings are genuine, then protest or not, he should not be compelled to salute or stand for the flag.
There’s no question that refusing to stand for the anthem shocks people at their emotional cores in a very genuine way, and that is largely because people invest different types of meaning in each symbol — no two people see the American flag in the same way, and it’s no surprise that the object meant to represent 330 million people will garner both reverence and resignation.
The second objection to Kaepernick’s protest would be that it isn’t appropriate in a work environment, which is also an odd objection given that what is or isn’t appropriate in a work setting is up to the employers, not various onlookers. Not only that, many Americans would chafe at the idea that they would be required to salute the anthem and sing the national anthem at work by their employer.
The final objection is a long discussion, but one that has been raised for decades with regards to athlete protest.
In retrospect, it’s easier to valorize past athletes for their activism in part because the issues they were protesting back then ring true today. They didn’t ring true at the time, and most of those athletes were vilified for their stances.
We decide after the fact that John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s stand was worthy of respect. We’ve decided that Muhammad Ali should be embraced, not rejected. Jackie Robinson was massively unpopular.
So too for Kaepernick and his fellow protesters. Their protests about police violence and racial bias in policing have become topics of widespread contention in the United States.
There’s strong evidence that his argument holds water, and there needs to be more discussion about the evidence available, which goes back decades.
The most significant early study on the subject in 1974 coined a phrase that’s been used in academic discussions ever since, “the police have one trigger finger for whites and another for blacks.”
Two more studies in the 1970s expanded on the argument with the same conclusions, including one from the Department of Justice. In 1978, Gilbert Pompa, the Director of the U.S. Justice Department’s Community Relations Service, called police shootings “the most volatile and potentially divisive force in the nation today.”
One of the most comprehensive studies on the subject featured analysis on the dozens of factors involved in the decision to pull a trigger from a number of respected criminologists in the field came out in 1981 that concluded that there was no evidence strong enough to disprove racism as a theory (though they did not positively conclude that racism was a motivating factor in the decision to shoot).
In 1993, this study found a link between macro-level economic inequality and police shootings as well as percentages of the population that were black. In 1998, the American Journal of Sociology published this one which provides some predictive factors for when and where killing of unarmed black people occurs but not explanations.
More contemporarily, this study last month by the Center for Policing Equity found that police officers were much more likely to use force in interactions with black suspects than white suspects. The Police Accountability Task Force in Chicago found the same.
ProPublica found that young black males specifically are 21 times more likely to be shot than white teenage men.
This 2015 study might be the gold standard, and it uses Bayesian analysis and an independent database that does not rely on the FBI’s Supplemental Homicide reports, which rely on police reports, to construct its model.
The study accounts for community crime rates, whether or not the individual in question was violent towards cops, income levels, and so on.
The Washington Post conducted a similar study published in the same year using researchers from the University of Louisville and the University of South Carolina found similar results after accounting for a number of confounding factors, including whether or not the suspect was armed, attacking the police and so on.
Not only that, law-abiding off-duty officers have been nine times more likely to have been shot by an on-duty police officer if they were a minority.
The primary argument against this is a working paper (not a peer-reviewed study) put together by an economist from Harvard named Roland Fryer. You can find it here.
The Fryer study has many flaws, and he acknowledges quite a few of them. One of the flaws was that it put “contacts” in the denominator, meaning it did not evaluate whether or not black people were more likely to be stopped by police officers.
We know that they are more likely to be stopped based on this analysis of the Greensboro police department, this data about stops in the state of Illinois, the evidence presented in the federal court case over Stop-and-Frisk in New York (supplemented by this study), this data from a task force in San Francisco and much more.
Further, granular studies on the phenotypical markers of Whiteness show that there’s even a gradient of interaction that increases in civility with how much “Whiter” a suspect appears.
This piece (also from Harvard) has further criticisms on several levels, which includes a detailed breakdown on how Fryer even determined statistical discrimination as a method. Fryer is using the wrong standard, per experts in the fields of criminology and statistics. Not only that, his method of separating statistical discrimination and racial bias doesn’t account for self-fulfilling prophecy effects — one would be incorrect to assume that people who drive red cars speed more often simply because they are pulled over for speeding more often; red cars simply get tracked more often.
As Vox points out, contact rate is an incredibly important factor and one should be suspect of any paper that claims that the earlier research on the subject is poor or sparse.
But study after study that analyzed threat factor under a variety of definitions, including on-the-ground threat assessments (whether the suspect is advancing on police officers, whether the suspect has a gun, and so on) and found that police still engage in racial bias when deciding when and who to shoot. This study in Philadelphia confirmed that officers are much more likely to make mistakes in identifying threats among black populations (i.e. mistaking a cell phone for a gun) than for white populations.
We know that black people are much more likely to be identified as threats when studying quick response times (again and again and again and again and again) and that neurophysical responses in the brain that identify threats activate much more with black suspects than white suspects.
There’s some evidence that the decision to shoot and the decision to identify a threat who could be shot are different and that police officers are better about making that distinction, and there’s a semi-famous study among those who deny racially-motivated bias that indicates in computer simulations that officers are less likely to shoot, but there’s no evidence that a testing environment like a simulation matches real-world outcomes.
It also doesn’t match the majority of computer simulation tests, as evidenced above (like this study, already linked)—and never accounts for the observer effect. If you are testing police officers for racial bias and they know it (or something like it), they will modify their behavior.
One could also argue that higher crime rates in black populations will naturally lead us to the conclusion that the police encounters tend to be more violent. But studies of threat misperception already account for the behavior of suspects.
Even outside of the context of shootings, there’s significant evidence of police bias in everyday policing. The Justice Department found racist policing practices in the Ferguson police department, the Seattle police department, the Phoenix police department, the Baltimore police department, the Chicago police department and more. There’s evidence of it happening in Oakland, too. Here’s a comprehensive study of everyday policing that indicates high levels of racial bias.
We know that black people in custody are four times more likely to die in custody than white people.
For those that don’t already agree, those studies will likely not be very compelling — but one should at least understand that Kaepernick’s objections aren’t subject to a mere fad in the American public where black Americans suddenly started caring about police violence.
Instead, it’s the continuation of a well-studied and long understood issue in the American justice system.
Institutions that represent the public are meant to be held accountable by the public. Athletes are not a special category of person that they are excluded from that very public, and their unique privilege in some respects doesn’t insulate them from the insidious impact of discrimination in other areas of their life.
It does no one any good to deny those with the largest public platforms to speak out against injustice, even if the perpetrators of that injustice are part of the larger American institution.
In particular, it doesn’t make any sense to ask that those who help shape our culture by guiding and leading one of our biggest cultural institutions be forbidden from commenting on how that culture is organized.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was correct when he said that Kaepernick is a model patriot. Abdul-Jabbar is just continuing the tradition that goes back to the founding fathers; it was Thomas Jefferson who said, “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”
Never stick to sports.