I was watching the best show on television last night, Scott VanPelt’s SportsCenter. It’s excellent because he is unlike every other talking head in that he doesn’t offer hot takes, and he doesn’t conjure up ridiculous arguments for the sake of arguing on television. He just reports sports in a comedic, lovable way. But even VanPelt isn’t immune, even VanPelt had to offer this prior to beginning his show: “I’d like to stick to sports, I really would, but at the moment, is that even possible?”
I don’t think it is. Then again, has it ever been?
We live in an era where everything is politicized, from what we say to how we say it to what we wear and, now, what, exactly, we’re doing during every rendition of the National Anthem. The National Anthem, as anybody reading this column surely knows, is played before every sporting event.
There is no sticking to sports, not when the preceding 90 or so seconds to every sporting event is now the most used weapon in politics, one that has been hijacked by politicians and athletes and fans and even the President of the goddamn United States. But here’s the thing: This isn’t new. Sure, the anthem being at the heart of all of this is new, somewhat, but athletes going out of their sphere to use their massive platforms and celebrity for something other than sports?
That’s as old as sport itself.
You can date it back to as far as the medieval ages if you’d like, when the most formidable knights, the ones who won the tournaments and were declared champions in the same manner we declared the Patriots, Cubs and Warriors champions, served in the king’s guard. The top athletes, in other words, were also the closest to the leader of the country. That would be as if J.J. Watt, Lebron James and Anthony Rizzo were President Trump’s top security advisors.
Stick to sports? That wasn’t even an option then.
Sure, the gap between sport and politics has widened since then, but it has never cleanly split. Do you think the Dodgers ignored the political ramifications when they signed Jackie Robinson, the first black player in major league baseball history?
Have we forgotten the 1966 Texas Western basketball team that started five black players and stared down Kentucky and Adolph Rupp and everything the white south stood for? Have we forgotten the maelstrom of race and politics that team brought forth?
Did they “stick to sports”?
Have we forgotten the 1968 Olympics, when Tommie Smith claimed gold in the 200 meters and John Carlos took bronze and when they took the podium they stood, heads down, fists raised? Would you like to know what song was playing when they did that?
The National Anthem.
Colin Kaepernick wasn’t even born yet, and already the anthem had been used for something more than singing along to Francis Scott Key’s ballad from Fort McHenry.
Through books and newspapers and magazines, I’ve indirectly studied sports history for as long as I could read, and I cannot recall a single era in which athletes — all athletes across all sports — have simply stuck to sports. They have platforms. They can, and should, use them. Hell, Muhammad Ali gave up the prime years of athletic career because he refused to stick to sports, and he’s revered not because of what he could do with his fists, but the steadfastness with which he defended his beliefs. Do I agree what he stood for? No, not really, but can I deny his impact? No, absolutely not.
For the most part, these messages have been for good. The Olympics — a sporting event — are a quadrennial unifier, countries setting aside differences for a few weeks of political rest. Even North Korea behaves.
Our 1980 Miracle on Ice team galvanized a country in the throes of war. There have been bigger upsets in sports, but there have been none more meaningful, because that win was about so much more than sports. That’s why I love sports, anyway: They are almost always about far more than the final score.
The billions raised by athletes in philanthropic efforts? Yeah, that’s them, every year, doing everything but sticking to sports. We chide them for being spoiled millionaires, but athletes, more often than not, in my opinion, use their wealth and celebrity for far more good than bad.
I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve written about athletes or families of athletes who have said that sports, in some way or other, saved their lives or became a vehicle for something far more than a scoreboard and some trophies.
No lives are being saved with these anthem protests. To be honest, this has spiraled so far out of control that I don’t think many could name what, exactly, is being protested anymore anyway. It began in a 2016 preseason game when a backup quarterback named Colin Kaepernick sat during the national anthem, supposedly protesting the police’s behavior towards black men.
It seemed to me a silly thing to do. I didn’t, and still don’t, quite grasp the connection between sitting during a song and police brutality, but I guess Kaepernick did, and still does. Because here we are, a year and a half later, and Kaepernick might be the only unemployed individual in American history to draw the direct ire of the highest office in the world. The NFL is at war with the president. The fans are at war with the NFL.
Over what? Kneeling? Police brutality? The President saying mean things to highly paid athletes?
But hold on. Kneeling?
That’s another element that’s entirely confusing to me. How is kneeling even a protest at all? Has kneeling not always been a gesture of utmost respect? Did knights not kneel to kings, and servants kneel to knights? Do men not kneel to their loved ones in asking for their hand in marriage? When a player gets hurt do we not take a knee for him or her? Do Christians not kneel every morning and night when they pray to God?
How is it that we can kneel before God but not before our flag?
Personally, I stand for the anthem, hand over heart, because that’s what I’ve been raised to do, and it seems that those who respect this country do the same. I’ve never thought to do anything else, and I won’t ever do anything else. I’ll look sideways at those who do kneel, because I can’t help but wonder if they even understand the point they’re trying to make when they kneel — are they protesting police brutality? The president? something else?
I don’t know. Do they?
The point being made by kneeling is beside me. You want to protest the president? Sure, go ahead, get politically active…but instead you take a knee? You want to protest police brutality? Sure, go ahead, but how is kneeling going to help reduce whatever exaggerated violence you perceive there to be?
I don’t know. I suppose I don’t really understand the point of protests as it is; I think they’re little more than glorified whining at this point, because what’s being done? If there was some tangible action being taken, sure, I’d get it. That’s why I love Seattle Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin. He’s actually doing something, going to police stations, discussing what can be done.
Kaepernick? He didn’t even vote.
He does not get my sympathy, not in the slightest.
But here we are, in an era where the moments before the games are tenser than any during them. So you can beg for athletes to “stick to sports” all you’d like, but it won’t happen, not anymore, not ever. They’re inextricably linked. So no, VanPelt, it is not possible to “stick to sports.”
Not even on a show named SportsCenter.