Should Sports Stars Stick to Sports?

A post from Tommy Tomlinson’s weekly newsletter asking if sports stars should stick to sports and not get involved in politics. He makes a good case but I’d add that I’m more interested in what our mailman or our plumber think about politics and the state of the world than what famous baseball, football, and basketball players—most of whom live very comfortably, make millions of dollars a year, and are clickbait on the Internet—think.

If you ever write about sports, and you happen to stray from the scores and the stats to make larger point about politics or race or something, you are bound to hear a particular three-word phrase from some of your readers:

Stick to sports.

At gut level, I sort of understand. For many people, sports are an escape from politics or race or whatever else might be in the news that day. Sports can transport us back to the days when we were kids, and you might not have known who represented you in Congress but you damn sure knew the starting lineup for your favorite baseball team. We do need a break from all the things weighing us down, and some people want that break to be sharp and clean. Keep the news over there, bring sports over here, and never the twain shall meet.

This week probably drove those people crazy.

NBA players halted the playoffs because of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, stacked upon the broken black bodies that have accumulated in America since the beginnings of its history. Other sports and other athletes followed their lead. And because American sports are broadcast everywhere, the whole world noticed.

Sports is the place where black Americans have the most concentrated power. They make up the majority of the stars. They’re the ones who sell soft drinks and sneakers. They can’t pass laws. But they can apply pressure not only by speaking out, but by walking away.

(And if you’re inclined to write off NBA players as spoiled millionaires, remember that WNBA players have spoken out louder and longer about these issues than any other athletes. And their salaries are a fraction of the NBA’s.)

I think the distinction some people have a hard time making is between the games and the players. The games are created for our entertainment. But the players aren’t. What they feel, how they act, is up to them and not to us. And if so many other people in the country are protesting police brutality and black suffering, it only makes sense that they would, too.

The smartest thing I’ve heard anybody say about sports in this strange year came from Washington Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle, who said: “Sports are like the reward for a functioning society.” He was talking about America’s response to the pandemic. But he could’ve been talking about the Jacob Blake shooting, too. Our society doesn’t seem to be functioning very well right now.

There might be a time down the road when it will be easier to stick to sports. But this ain’t it.

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