Almost two months ago, after the Daily Trojan wrapped up production for the spring semester, I thought I had written the final installment of “The State of Play.” Weeks later, when I agreed to give the column another go for the summer, I was excited but also deeply worried — American life had still not resumed since the coronavirus outbreak, and not a single significant sporting event was scheduled for months.
As a result, I was convinced that within weeks, I would find myself staring at a blank Google doc for the 10th straight hour, eyes bloodshot, desperately clawing at any sporting development that remotely resembled a workable topic for the column.
I was very, very wrong.
Not a single meaningful sporting event has taken place in the United States since March (sorry UFC fans, but I’m going to have to exclude you here). Pitches haven’t been thrown, shots haven’t been blocked and games haven’t been played in more than four months, and yet, the past couple of weeks have been host to the most significant sports developments I’ve ever witnessed.
Since my last column alone, tweets from college football players have forced an apology from a Power-Five coach who exaggerated his outreach to his team, gotten one assistant suspended, opened an investigation into the highest-paid strength and conditioning coach in the country and caused programwide reckonings throughout the NCAA. In the same vein, athletes at USC have organized to combat racial inequity and football players at UCLA have united to demand third-party health assistance in light of what they describe as UCLA’s perpetual failures and negligence.
These events represent only a fraction of what has taken place in recent weeks. In addition to the upheaval within the college ranks, change and resistance have consumed professional sports. Less than two weeks ago, NASCAR banned the display of the Confederate flag at races — and the FBI is now investigating a noose found in Black driver Bubba Wallace’s garage at Talladega Superspeedway. On June 12, Kyrie Irving and other notable players injected doubt into the prospects of the NBA season restarting by voicing their fears that a season resumption might distract from ongoing civil rights efforts. To top it off, it looks like baseball as we know it might be over because greedy owners and greedy players refuse to prioritize the fate of the game over their checkbooks.
To put it plainly, an absolute shit-ton of stuff is happening and happening fast. It feels nearly impossible to keep up with daily sports developments. Given the sheer volume of it all, deriving a single succinct, packaged message is nearly impossible.
So, a lot is going on, but what the fuck does it all mean?
Well, it means a lot. You don’t need a fancy, criminally overpriced USC degree to know that. But, if this is going to be the very last installment of “The State of Play,” I’d like to drive one point home as hard as I can: The barrier between politics and ordinary American life is completely shattered. It’s gone, and there is no place where this is more evident than sports.
For almost half a year, I’ve ranted on this column about how sports, politics and American society intersect. Now, I think that much is painfully and obviously clear.
Today, however, what I’m trying to communicate is not only that they intersect, but also that the intersection is illustrative of the unavoidable nature of politics in modern American life.
For most of my memorable sports fandom, there’s been a tension between the worlds of sports and politics. Broadly speaking, a large and often loud faction of sports fans has repeatedly expressed reluctance to discuss the two topics in the same breath. To do so, in their mind, would be to contaminate one of the great escapes available to Americans. In other words, sometimes work sucks, family sucks, presidents suck and life sucks, but sports is always fucking awesome — an unadulterated world of pure action and entertainment, devoid of life’s politics and other annoyances.
Look, I understand that position. In fact, I sympathize with some elements of it. But in the world we live in today, no aspect of American life — especially sports — can be removed from our present-day politics.
Today, if you want to talk about sports or even have a remotely thoughtful opinion about the state of sports, you’re going to have to know a thing or two about political and social issues. If you want to talk about the prospects of sports returning, you’re going to have to talk about the prospects of our dumbass-in-chief getting his shit together. If you want to talk about college football, you’re going to have to talk about the fact that last season’s College Football Playoff champion and runner-up currently share at least 53 cases of coronavirus infection between the two rosters. To ignore these realities would be like talking about ’90s baseball without bringing up steroids or talking about my column without mentioning the appalling amount of literary incompetence that it contains on a biweekly basis.
The option of being apolitical no longer exists. The Karens and Joe Sixpacks of the world can no longer absolve themselves of moral responsibility simply by saying “I don’t want to talk about politics.”
What’s more is that these shouldn’t even be political issues. Athletes shouldn’t have to watch the confederate flag — a symbol of racism, oppression and treason — be paraded around sporting events like it’s a goddamn pony. Black college athletes shouldn’t be forced to put their lives and the lives of their loved ones on the line for free while their predominantly white coaches and college administrators rake in seven-figure salaries for sitting on their asses.
These issues are not about politics. They are about human rights, respect and dignity. For sports fans, that reality — and their participation in it — is now inescapable.
Stuart Carson is a rising senior writing about the intersection of sports, politics and American society. His column, “The State of Play,” ran every other Wednesday.