The recent contretemps involving football players kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem demonstrates the folly of mixing politics with sports or entertainment. The demonstrative kneeling trend begun by then quarterback of the San Francisco 49rs Colin Kaepernick to protest alleged police abuse against black people and historical racism in America is the perfect case in point: Rather than giving proper voice to a controversial issue the demonstrations turned fans perceptions of hundreds of athletes and a few team owners into haters of America and Americans.
The result is a growing schism between sports teams and the fans whose support pays the salaries of these benighted millionaires and billionaires. Generally, fans don’t care much about the political opinions of athletes or team owners but when athletes take a knee during the National Anthem fans see the action as beyond the pale, and rightly so. When athletes bring their politics into the public arena through their highly paid entertainment platform they show themselves to be ungrateful of the riches and opportunities presented to them by living in America. And they poke a crooked finger in the eye of their customers.
“We love this country. It’s America. We know there are injustices in this world, but to me, personally, football is football and that’s what we need to approach it as.” – Pittsburgh Steeler’s center Maurkice Pounsey
To protest against the National Anthem and the American flag – symbols of American unity – athletes are denigrating the very existence of the United States. They are essentially saying, in an in-your-face manner, that America, from its founding documents to the present-day state of the republic, is an irreconcilably racist nation and so are its people, the white ones anyway. Most fans disagree with the assessment and are starting to find other things to do on Sunday than to watch football or go to games. Some teams and players are starting to get the message, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose entire team, save one patriot, failed to come out of the locker room for the singing of the anthem. Apparently fan backlash (and perhaps the athletes own sensibilities) has forced them to reconsider as they now plan to stand for the anthem at games. As Steeler’s center Maurkice Pounsey put it, “We love this country. It’s America. We know there are injustices in this world, but to me, personally, football is football and that’s what we need to approach it as.”
Mixing politics with sports is counter-productive, particularly as the athletes are telling the fans that they are the problem. That the fans, because they are Americans, are part of, and enablers of a racist culture. There was a time in America when such racism was pervasive, driven by the nation’s institutions and overall culture. But after an extremely brutal and bloody Civil War and courageous defiance of Jim Crow and other institutionally driven racist policies, along with tremendous societal growth and understanding, America no longer generates racist institutions. Yes, there are racist groups and people in the U.S., but they no longer have institutional power are relegated to the lunatic fringe and not accepted by the vast majority of the American community.
Amazingly, just as the nation seems to be growing towards true equality of opportunity for all races and genuine understanding between groups, along comes Kaepernick and a few hundred pampered and wealthy athletes to tell us that we’re doing it all wrong. What these affected athletes don’t seem to understand is that they live and work in a nation that provides boundless freedoms for all of its citizens, and disrespecting the flag and anthem spits in the face of those who fought and died to secure those freedoms; of those who suffered under the lash of slavery hoping for a better world; of those fought and died to end slavery; of those who put themselves to the hazard to end racist institutions such as Jim Crow and fought for the Civil Rights of all people; for those who go out every single day to try and maintain peace and social cohesion in dangerous neighborhoods.
Sports can act as a cultural unifier as exemplified by Jesse Owen’s performance in the 1936 Olympics or the grace and resolute actions of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball or the Russel Wilson led Seattle Seahawks winning the Super Bowl. Such instances are examples of heroic human endeavor, not cheaply won political statements. Political discourse is necessarily divisive, it is how people settle differences without resorting to war or fisticuffs. If sports are to continue to build societal cohesion and unite people of all colors and creeds, then politics must remain in its own proper forums.