I'll take my politics with a small helping of sports, please
By Dan Karpiel
After five months – and for some of us, it felt like 50 years – without sports, the major professional leagues have or very soon will be back in action.
Major League Baseball began playing games last weekend and this weekend will see the return of the NBA and NHL along with the start of NFL training camps.
We also have an election this November, if you haven’t heard, and the pro leagues are eagerly jumping into the political fray.
This is not what a lot of sports fans want.
Multiple MLB players kneeled during the playing of the national anthem since play began. Hundreds of NFL players have already stated their intentions to do likewise when games begin in September.
On Saturday night, two WNBA teams’ players dropped their basketballs and walked off the court in unison as the anthem began.
The NHL players have, for the most part, been pretty quiet and apolitical, at least relative to the other pro leagues.
We have been down this road before and it was not pretty. This time, with more players than ever in every sport vowing to make statements, yours truly sees trouble ahead.
The NBA presents an interesting case. Considering that the league’s audience skews younger and more diverse than that of both the NFL and, especially, MLB, the league has been far more willing to carry the flag of various progressive causes. This is particularly the case since Adam Silver, an unabashed progressive who just last week disclosed he made the maximum allowed $2,800 contribution to the presidential campaign of Joe Biden, took over as commissioner.
In 2016, Silver moved the NBA All Star game out of North Carolina following the state’s controversial “bathroom bill,” has celebrated in New York’s pride rallies and signed the NBA onto the U.N. Declaration on climate change.
Yet, Silver and the NBA got into some hot water last year when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey spoke out in support of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong on social media. The tweet was deleted shortly thereafter but the damage was done and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was none too pleased.
Following that, statements castigating the NBA for its hypocrisy came from, among many others, Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in political science to know those two Americans do not agree on much. But on this, they were in sync.
The NBA does enormous business in China; the sport is wildly popular there and a country with an enormous population and emerging middle class, Morey’s comment and subsequent rebuke by the CCP cost the league, by some estimates, $400 million in lost revenue. Many asked, why does the league overtly champion progressive causes in the U.S. but gets into the proverbial bed with a government that has a horrendous record on human rights?
This created unnecessary problems for the league, drew sharp criticism and distracted from what the NBA is about – the beautiful game of basketball. It was a bad look for the league.
Personally, I’m fine with anyone who speaks out for causes in which they believe strongly. That’s entirely their right as Americans. But I know others who disagree and are already promising to literally tune out sports as the leagues and players get political.
My point in penning this column is to share my belief that, perhaps given the extraordinary amount of tumult in our country (for that matter, the world) right now, is it wise for athletes and leagues to take overtly political stances when sports is, or at least used to be, a uniting force? Honestly, I could care less if the political stance an athlete or league takes aligns with my personal beliefs or not. I just think it’s bad for business and only serves to cause further rancor.
Some say that athletes, who have an enormous platform, have an obligation to speak out on causes important to them. Frankly, I disagree. A right? Of course. An obligation? Not so much. And I know that’s not a popular opinion, either.
Maybe I am wrong but I think all of us should be able to appreciate watching LeBron James dunk a basketball and Drew Brees throw a football without first having to know for whom they are casting their ballot this November.
Right now, we need things that bring us together rather than drive us further apart. Sports should be one of those things.
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