As an example of sport flexing political muscle, consider the recent move by Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred. After legislation passed in Georgia’s state legislature that limited the voting rights of minorities, Mr. Manfred – in consultation with MLB teams, current and former players, and the players’ union – took action. He moved one of the sport’s showcase events, this summer’s All-Star Game, from Atlanta to Denver.
What a precedent that could set. Peach State Republicans who brought in the legislation were outraged. So was the shut-up-and-dribble crowd, those who senselessly insist athletes should stay in their lane and keep their noses away from the political fray.
That’s not about to happen. Major League Baseball’s intrusion was just one recent example of sports figures increasingly turning to political activism.
After the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, National Basketball Association players took the lead in the Black Lives Matter movement, wearing those three words emblazoned on their shirts and clamouring at courtside for social justice. The National Football League’s players struck a blow for minority rights in backing quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem. Players from championship teams from around the sports world spurned the traditional invitations to the White House in protest of Donald Trump’s politics.
Just this weekend, at the Masters golf tournament – which is held at the longtime bastion of white privilege that is Augusta National – much time was given over to honouring Lee Elder, the first Black man to ever compete in the tournament. Club poohbahs were finally made to feel guilty enough to do so.
There have been athlete protests before, but nothing like today’s. In the past, the big American leagues stayed away from politics. Athletes played the role of patriots. To what was happening off the field, they wore blindfolds.
The new Georgia law limits mail-in voting, which favoured the Democrats. President Joe Biden drew much criticism for labelling it “sick.” It was “Jim Crow for the 21st century,” he said. Even The Washington Post called him out for hyperbole.
But there’s no doubting the intent of the law is voter suppression. Does anyone think Georgia Republicans would have changed the laws had they not lost the state in the general election as well as subsequently losing the state’s two Senate seats, which cost the national party a majority in that chamber?
The presidency of Donald Trump politicized everything, even sport.
Part of the appeal of sport is that it is a source of escapism, a comforting distraction from the dross of politics and other daily afflictions. Not so much anymore, as athletes take on more and more political activism and sport becomes embroiled in the culture. Sport’s bipartisan flavour will dwindle.
Athletes can no longer stand idly by as those conflicts rage, nor should they – too much is at stake. With their overpowering presence in the public consciousness, they can exert social pressure like few others and are doing so in a way that – unlike as we saw with hockey commentator Don Cherry in Canada – is racially progressive.
The more prominence sports receive, the better. The benefits of sport are well known but not emphasized enough. Sport is character-building. It is a source of teamwork, of individual and national self-esteem. It has “the power to unite people,” as Nelson Mandela put it, “in a way that little else does.”
To be sure, it has its share of abuse and scandal and shame. But sport gives a nation heroes and role models and exhilaration. It is a source of health and fitness. It moves youth from the streets to the soccer fields and the baseball diamonds. It is a kindler of dreams.
Sports provides these advantages to all nations, but the United States is a special case – it is one of the remaining areas where American exceptionalism thrives. It is much the marrow of the country. Its college athletics are incomparable; its football, basketball and baseball leagues captivate the masses. In many sports, America sets the standards.
The notion held by many that athletes shouldn’t be able to speak out on the issues of day is irrational. Just like non-athletes, just like anyone in any profession, they are entitled to exercise their constitutional free-speech rights.
Fay Vincent, a former baseball commissioner, joined a large chorus of critics in saying “Major League Baseball can’t become a weapon of the culture wars.”
Wrong. The culture wars need all the weapons available, provided they are on the right side of the battlefield. And that’s where, as they campaign for social justice, the new sports activists hold court.
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