COLUMN: As football season approaches, don’t try to depoliticize sports


Last Tuesday, ESPN announced its plan to keep Asian American sports broadcaster Robert Lee from calling a University of Virginia football game due to concern over — of all things — his name. The University of Virginia is located in Charlottesville, the site of recent disturbing and deadly white supremacist activity, and it so happens that broadcaster Robert Lee shares a name with Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general whose statue the white supremacists had been trying to protect.

On ESPN’s part, it was a public relations move as detrimental as it was nonsensical. And indeed outcry did arise, though some of the criticism was indubitably malicious: On Fox News, former ESPN reporter Britt McHenry complained about what she perceived to be the work of the crazed and overly careful left.

And yet, it’s unfortunate that McHenry and others chose to slyly endorse Robert E. Lee under the guise of condemning ESPN’s decision — for the decision, indeed, deserves to be re-studied, but not because ESPN had the decency to ally itself with those who marched against white supremacy in Charlottesville. It’s because, at the end of the day, Robert Lee is an Asian American sports announcer in an industry where few Asian Americans succeed, forced to switch games because of nothing more than his very common Asian surname.

One is forced to question if things would’ve gone differently if Lee’s surname was something more European: Robert Smith,  Robert Brown or the like. One must also speculate why ESPN — in all its thinking — did not realize that discriminating against an Asian American employee is fundamentally disparate from choosing the side against white supremacy.

And yet, here’s a potential solution: Perhaps ESPN did not think it was choosing political sides at all.

In an article from The New York Times about the decision, college sports writer Marc Tracy wrote that “the centripetal force of politics is bound to make a battlefield of almost anything,” and quoted ESPN historian James Andrew Miller as saying the network desires “to be as far away from geopolitical and cultural issues as they can be.” Maybe ESPN had a decision to make — politics in sports or no politics in sports — and chose the latter, not realizing every action about race has sociopolitical consequences, regardless of intention.

On a similar note, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is still under the national spotlight for deciding not to stand for pre-game national anthems, a choice that has opened another divide in the sports fan community. Kaepernick cited his actions as support for minorities currently being oppressed by American society. The sentiment is apparent: He will not honor the symbols of a nation that does not honor its people of color. And yet, his choice came under harsh scrutiny — for being unpatriotic, anti-military — and Kaepernick today is unsigned to any team. However, his concern for the dark side of American symbolism remains glaringly relevant as President Donald Trump fashions a picture of an American flag as his Twitter cover photo, and yet deems the journalists who report on him unpatriotic, seemingly equating allegiance to the country with allegiance to his racist, oppressive agenda.

Put simply, in an industry where the national anthem is played before everything from Little League games to the NFL and where people of color pose such a massive role, one cannot support athlete’s bodies and physical feats without at least acknowledging their political stances. One cannot also — like ESPN — pretend to be colorblind in the hopes that it will erase political ramifications.

Furthermore, everyone knows the wide reach of athletics, which is why last year’s Super Bowl saw commercials that painted a picture of a diverse and resilient America in the face of Trump’s election, and why some of history’s greatest rebellions against political oppression and adversity happened in the athletic arena.

What ESPN and Kaepernick’s critics fail to understand is that sports are political, have always been political and will always be political — no matter what.

Zoe Cheng is a junior majoring in writing for screen and television. Her column, “Cross Section,” runs every Tuesday.

11 replies
  1. Benjamin Roberts
    Benjamin Roberts says:

    First off, I think readers should know that according to Disqus, I have been “banned” by the Daily Trojan. I am discussing this with my attorney but meanwhile I’m posting under a different account. We’ll see how “tolerant” of diverse opinion the DT is.

    Meanwhile, to be clear, there are many decent, non-racist people who present good arguments for keeping confederate statues up. This is a nuanced conversation. People on the Left don’t argue, they label. More importantly… Please do not politicize sports. It’s the one area of our lives where we can generally come together and set aside differences…. Or compete in healthy and fair competition. In fact, the liberal ethos simply doesn’t work with sports. It’s a meritocracy. Nobody cares if the team is predominantly black, or white, or Latino, or male. It’s all about skill and ability. Of course sadly this was not always the case, but even when we reflect and celebrate heroes like Jackie Robinson, we realize that he didn’t break the color barrier because he was black… It’s because he was an outstanding ball player… And society (and Major League Baseball) realized that it was not only wrong to exclude blacks, but it was also foolish. The bottom line is that society could learn a lot from sports. Open mindedness, inclusion, sportsmanship, all without concern for each other’s race, but whilst also demanding excellence, growth and a winning attitude.

    It’s really a shame that someone at the DT (and other readers) block me or report my comments as spam.

  2. Tom French
    Tom French says:

    Much as I admire players’ football skills, I doubt that they’re any more qualified to give me political advice than my barber. Miss Cheng may want me to give a rat’s behind about what Kaepernick thinks, but she might want to consider what they’re paid to do which is provide entertainment.

    • Don Harmon
      Don Harmon says:

      Righ you are, Tom. It’s often tedious when famous athletes and entertainers pop off with idiotic political opinions, or worse yet, commit ignorant protesting acts. Can’t be helped. They have huge audiences and that grants them great authority to speak, however much their opinions are vapid and fatuous.

      The worst one for this that I have observed is Roseanne Barr. Her allegations that Pres. G. W. Bush commissioned the 9/11 sneak attack are absolutely astonishing. And I suppose that her fans have accepted this truly bizarre conspiracy theory as established fact.

  3. Opine
    Opine says:

    ESPN made yet another blunder. They’re just too scared and made a mountain out of a small pile of dirt. Caved in. How silly. Politics and sports/entertainment do not belong together.

  4. GeorgeCurious
    GeorgeCurious says:

    Zoe, when a sports fan watches a game, the last thing they want to see is a player spouting political or religious beliefs. There’s plenty of room for that off the field. We, as sports fans, want an escape from that bull%$&@. Got it? Good. Now go write some drivel about Trump, feminism, and racism and leave sports out of it.

  5. Don Harmon
    Don Harmon says:

    Zoe writes “. . . ESPN and Kaepernick’s critics fail to understand is that sports are political, have always been political and will always be political — no matter what.” I dispute that. Politics is the seeking, or exercise of, power and influence among organized groups.

    The cynical, unpatriotic malcontent athletes who reject and scorn our country, a country that has made them multimillionaires, do not fit within that concept. They are outraged over white supremacy, the Confederacy, or a small number of ill-trained and unsuitable policemen? OK, they should say that, but instead, in front of stadium crowds and millions of viewers on TV – they choose to dishonour and sneer at their country and those of us who love it.

  6. Lunderful
    Lunderful says:

    All lives matter. And why should the country “honor” people of color? That’s discriminatory.

    Tell us exactly what Trump has done or said to brand him a racist and oppressor. You are of narrow and shallow intellect, however it’s easy to see why you may gain favor with other post-post-pubesent, micro-cephalics.

    #TheNFLPut100Million$InTheKaepernickBankAccount

    • Don Harmon
      Don Harmon says:

      Lunderful, your comments that I read in the DT have been pertinent, accurate and sharp. Not this time. Yes, tear apart writer Zoe Cheng’s illogic, but please do not use personal insults against her. You called her of narrow shalow intellect and lumped her among other . . . microcephalics. Disagree, critque, yes, do it. But please do not launch personal attacks against writers here.

      • Lunderful
        Lunderful says:

        Among other of her unfounded claims is that Trump is a racist. Re-read her tripe. And investigate Trump’s public statements. I reserve the right to blast anyone in any mode or measure who slings cheap, unsubstantiated, drive-by insults couched as commentary.

        • Don Harmon
          Don Harmon says:

          Lunderful, of course you have that right. And I agree that her rant is full of tripe. I’m on your side. But if a writer didn’t insult you, why go after the writer personally? Instead, I respectfully suggest that you demolish the stupidity in the stuff you read, point-by-point. Your replies and comments here will carry a lot more authority if you do that.

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