COLUMN: Please let sports stay an escape from politics
“Yes, athletes are committed to sports, as are those who write about them,” he wrote. “But we can — and should — treat ourselves and, likewise, be treated as so much more. Never just ‘stick to sports.’ Please, never do.”
Given that He is the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan (and my boss), I don’t want to step on his toes too much … but he’s wrong. I’m not an advocate of some codified separation of sport and state, and I certainly don’t believe players and writers should be barred from voicing their political opinions. Having said that, I also believe sports are at their most effective — and affective — when their crossover with the so-called “real world” is kept to a minimum.
I remember the moment when sports impacted my life the most: It was a regular season NHL game between the Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins on April 17, 2013. I don’t remember too much of what transpired on the ice — only that Boston lost and not a soul in New England cared.
I do remember the pregame ceremonies, though, as a shell-shocked region filed into the TD Garden and tuned in on TV to watch the first local sporting event following the Boston Marathon bombing. The manhunt for the terrorists responsible was still ongoing, and people were overwhelmed by fear, grief and utter bewilderment. An overly emotional Rene Rancourt was unable to belt out his usual rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” in the arena, so the crowd helped him. A 20,000 person choir performed the national anthem that night, ending with defiant chants of “USA! USA!”
Then we wiped away our tears and forgot about it all for a few hours while watching men crash into each other at high speeds on ice.
To me, this is sports at their best. Because as hard as we all rep our favorite teams or poke fun at the Warriors blowing a 3-1 lead, sports unite people. Even before that night in the Garden, teams around Major League Baseball had begun playing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” the Boston Red Sox’s seventh inning stretch anthem, at their games to show support for the city. The team that came up with the idea to do that? The New York Yankees. Signs littered Yankee Stadium: “YANKEE FANS LOVE BOSTON.”
When I look back on how much sports helped heal New England in 2013 (the Red Sox won the World Series, and the Bruins made a run to the Stanley Cup Final), it’s easy to forget how politically charged the Marathon bombing was. The fallout from the terrorist attack predictably included more fear mongering about the Islamic State, and Rolling Stone angered millions by plastering the murderer on its front cover. Some wanted the bomber burned at the stake; others thought he was a sympathetic victim of radical propaganda. Sports provided a distraction from the anger. I was already a Yankee fan before arriving in New England, but I’ll admit it was sweet to see the Red Sox celebrate their championship with “B STRONG” emblazoned the outfield grass behind them. Boston felt strong indeed.
Things feel different now in the Trump era. If that Bruins’ pregame ceremony took place today, would a player sit on the bench during the anthem in protest? If President Donald Trump threw out a first pitch — like President George W. Bush did post-9/11 during the 2001 World Series — would he be booed? Would players or coaches speak out against Trump’s presence? Unlike sports, politics are inherently divisive, and the deeper divisions Trump brings are threatening to hang over sporting events as a four-year shadow.
This is what I’m afraid of: not that athletes, coaches and sportswriters aren’t “staying in their lane” by speaking out politically, but that their trend will soon turn sporting figures into political figures, too. Such a trend would rob sports of what I cherish most about them. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has inextricably linked himself to the anti-national anthem crusade, and no matter where he plays next season, that will follow him. All of a sudden, rooting for Kaepernick’s team unavoidably aligns you with his movement to some degree, which is fine with some, but not with others. The same goes for Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr and his many passionate objections to Trump and his policies. In other words, sports are slowly becoming a springboard into political arguments — and that’s my nightmare.
Of course, without politics mixing with sports, Jackie Robinson may have never broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball. You might even say that the sports world’s response to the Boston Marathon bombing was a type of political stance. So I’m not going to sit here and join the chants of “stick to sports.” But the rare occasions in which sports crossed into politics are now becoming far too common, and instead of healing and bringing people together, sports are now drawing fresh dividing lines.
Whether it comes to athletes, coaches or sportswriters like myself, let’s be careful. We should never be afraid to speak out about what we care about, but we also shouldn’t equate that boldness with an invitation to play Chuck Todd. We all hear enough every single day about how the world is burning to the ground. Tuning into a ballgame is our amazing escape from all that. Let’s keep that in mind and keep sports great.
Oliver Jung is a junior studying print and digital journalism. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, Jung Money, runs on Thursdays.