By Tyler D. Michals
The intersection of sports and politics has occasionally been fraught with controversy. Amid the civil rights movement, Muhammad Ali was briefly banned from boxing for his stance on the Vietnam War. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were subject to significant criticism for raising their fists in a salute to Black power at the 1968 Summer Olympics. Those examples are blips on the radar, though, compared with the unifying effect of sports over the decades.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there were many such moments – most notably, perhaps, was George W. Bush’s first pitch at Game 3 of the Yankees-Diamondbacks World Series in New York City. Similarly, when the New York Giants played their first post-9/11 game in Kansas City, Missouri, against the Chiefs. Chiefs fans at Arrowhead Stadium gave the visiting New York team a standing ovation when the players walked onto the field. Well, we’re not in Kansas City anymore.
Recently, Jack Del Rio, defensive coordinator for the NFL’s Washington Commanders, touched off the latest firestorm when he compared the Jan. 6 riot to the 2020 riots that followed George Floyd’s murder. The organization announced that Del Rio will address the team about his comments, whatever that means. In the meantime, Del Rio was fined $100,000 by the team, and head coach Ron Rivera called the comments hurtful. Del Rio has since apologized.
This isn’t the first time an NFL coach has been in hot water for suspected conservatism. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick came under fire for being a possible Trumper in the run-up to the 2017 Super Bowl. In fact, Belichick was even offered the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Donald Trump, but he tactfully demurred, presumably to avoid the appearance of being a Trump supporter.
Much of this collision between sports and politics can be traced to then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem as a protest of inequality and racism in America. In doing so, the line between sports and politics was shattered, perhaps permanently. At the time, Kaepernick’s protest started a national debate over free speech and patriotism. But in a larger sense, it opened the door to bringing political activism in sports into the mainstream. Indeed, at the time, a Wall Street Journal editorial lamented “the politicization of everything.” While Kaepernick hasn’t played an NFL game since his protests, he still casts a shadow.
The NBA and its players have been particularly outspoken about matters of social justice. The Boston Celtics made it to the NBA Finals, pitted against the Golden State Warriors, but that didn’t stop Celtics star Jaylen Brown from conjecturing that players might be willing to boycott games to protest gun violence. Steve Kerr, the Warriors’ head coach, began and ended his first news conference after the Uvalde, Texas, school massacre with an impassioned cry for action on gun legislation.
Still, the NBA has not been immune to internecine strife. Last year, when Daryl Morey, former general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted support for Hong Kong protesters, LeBron James, the NBA’s biggest star, responded critically, speculating that Morey wasn’t “educated” on the topic. The owner of the Rockets, Tilman Fertitta, took to Twitter to clarify that the Rockets “are NOT a political organization.” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver offered tepid support for Morey. Although Morey apologized, he ultimately stepped down.
The situation is more complex when it comes to the MLB. Earlier this month, when the Tampa Bay Rays rolled out a team jersey with a rainbow logo for Pride Month, some players on the team refused to wear it. The team’s president responded this way:
“I’m proud of the fact we did this and so many of our players chose to wear the logo. … I’m also proud of the conversations we had during the run-up to this night and in the aftermath. That’s a really good byproduct of this: to be able to actually have these conversations is really valuable and rare.”
Even before the rainbow logo controversy, in response to several mass shootings, the Rays franchise sparked controversy by donating $50,000 to Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization that lobbies for gun control legislation. This move provoked the ire of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who recently vetoed the team’s $35 million subsidy for a new sports complex, in part due to the team’s political advocacy.
The tension that results from the clashing politics of athletes, fans, coaches and governments creates a dilemma for sports leagues. Athletes are increasingly aware of their power to effect social change, and it would be inadvisable, if not impossible, to stifle those efforts. But tolerance is a two-way street.
It cannot be the case that opinions from one end of the political spectrum are acceptable while opinions from the other end are subject to fines and ostracism. If players cannot tolerate coaches with differing political views, then who could fault fans for feeling similarly about players who are outspoken about views contrary to their own?
One solution is to foster a culture that has more respect for the opinions of others. Rather than attempting to cancel Kaepernick, Del Rio or anyone else who dares to go against the current, we would be better off respecting their intellectual independence – particularly when we disagree.
Still, given the polarization of politics, the next dust-up between conservatives and liberals with sports as the battlefield is inevitable. A classic saying from baseball wordsmith Yogi Berra sums it up nicely: “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”
Tyler D. Michals is a practicing attorney in Chicago.