Sports and Politics Are Not Strange Bedfellows, They Are Old Lovers

As June melts into July and gives way to another hot, languid summer, it seems appropriate to retreat to our favorite air-conditioned armchair and play Monday morning quarterback for the year in sports.

After all, aside from the occasional NFL Pro-Bowler being arrested for murder, or a surprise Wimbledon exit here and there, it is a relatively quiet period for professional sports in the United States. The NBA and NHL championship trophies have already been hoisted (condolences, San Antonio and Boston), and the NFL remains but a glint in Roger Goodell’s tyrannical, all-consuming eye. Even baseball, that staid pastime of the American summer, fails to get exciting until after the All-Star Game. Like, in September. Late September.

 

Indeed, the relative quiet of mid-summer should allow for a little perspective. Of course, nothing has been quiet about the last several months of professional sports. This year, political controversies have readily bled onto the sports page, and despite claims that politics have no place at the dinner table or the pitcher’s mound, I believe that sports are not only a natural hotbed for political controversies, but also a constructive space for these debates to unfold.

Certainly, if the 2012-13 professional sports seasons are any indication, athletes, coaches and sportscasters agree. Whether it was Bob Costas’ December call for tighter gun regulation during a Sunday Night Football halftime show, NBA center Jason Collins’ coming out to Sports Illustrated, or Brittney Griner’s revelation that she was instructed to downplay her homosexuality by Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, the discourse in the locker rooms and arenas of sports have echoed the debates in the halls of Congress and the White House. 

Even ESPN took a page out of the Fox News/MSNBC playbook, in producing a “debate” over Collins’ announcement featuring gay sportswriter LZ Granderson and basketball analyst Chris “Homosexuality is an Open Rebellion to God” Broussard. In other words, if it will gin up some extra viewers, network producers should give bigotry an open forum to disparage a large swath of the population (To be fair, it was that slow news hour on ESPN after Tim Tebow has had lunch, but before he has begun thinking about dinner options). Certainly, sports are no strangers to political controversies, and these are only the freshest examples. In recent memory, we have had swollen, teary-eyed baseball players testify before Congress, Senators accuse the BCS of anti-trust violations, and governors sue the NCAA over penalties to football programs.

Of course, sports and politics hardly make for strange bedfellows; if anything, they are old lovers.

What sporting event fails to begin without a serenade to Old Glory? When was the last time a president did not invite the World Series winners up to the White House for a nightcap? Hell, sports and politics have been going steady for so long, they even talk like each other. Analysts complement President Obama’s campaign for its efficient “ground game,” just like they might for his favorite Chicago Bears. In his concession speech, Mitt Romney took a cue from the rhetoric of every defeated title contender and declared that he “had left everything on the field.” 

Since the early 20th century, when no one less than Mr. Teddy “Speak Softly and Carry A Big Stick” Roosevelt himself worried about the violence of primeval football and encouraged college presidents to create an inchoate NCAA, politicians have made it their business to oversee, laud, admonish, and associate themselves with the field, the diamond, the court, and the rink. 

Yet anytime someone within professional sports voices a political opinion, a familiar response follows: “what business does this jock have talking about politics?”

There exists a libertarian simplicity to such statements, which imagines the world in neat, vacuum-sealed components. For instance, in his customary, knee-jerk reaction to any implication that guns might kill people, NRA chief Wayne LaPierre decried Costas’ halftime speech by saying, “People turned on NBC to watch a football game last night. They didn’t tune in to listen to Bob Costas … whining about his social agenda.”

Liberals — myself included — are just as guilty as conservatives in employing such rhetoric. I balk whenever Tim Tebow fans cite his deep faith as their reason for supporting the once-and-future third-stringer, and attempt to steer the conversation back to his poor completion rate and QB rating. However, in truth, Tebow’s politics make me uncomfortable — as I imagine Costas’ politics make LaPierre uncomfortable — and I insist upon the arbitrary separation of sports and politics to avoid a debate about the latter.

A peculiar fear undergirds such segregation: the fear that passive entertainment might result in active questioning of opinions and beliefs. The insistence that athletics and affairs of state have nothing to do with each other simply begs the questions the “jocks” raise, rather than attempt to answer them.

We like to think of our sports as an escape, a respite from the complex issues that offer no ready solutions. A basketball game? A soccer match? For all their inherent excitement, the anxiety will fade after the final buzzer. The real world is not so generous. The arbitrary line we draw between sports and politics magnifies the fantasy of that former, simpler world, where every one has at least a chance to win.  When someone like Bob Costas or Jason Collins crosses that line and reminds us that the sporting event we are watching exists within our own convoluted reality and not outside of it, we curse them for shattering the façade. However, I believe sports professionals have a right, as we all do, to share their perspectives when afforded the opportunity. 

There will be dilettantes and die-hards. For each impassioned Chris Kluwe fighting for gay rights, there will be a Chris Culliver, delivering discriminatory screeds. But ignorance can only be extirpated when it is brought to light, as was the case with Culliver. Whether I agree with them or not, I would rather my favorite athletes have something more to offer than a devastating right hook or unstoppable slap shot. Despite what we like to believe in both sports and politics, winning isn’t everything. Sports taught us that once. It can teach us that again.