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Members of the Carolina Panthers take a knee before the start of a game against the Atlanta Falcons at Bank of America Stadium on Oct. 29, 2020 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Five days after Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency in 2016, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Mike Evans decided to take a pop at him.

Like a few of his colleagues, Evans knelt during that weekend’s NFL pregame anthems. Unlike any of them, Evans singled out Trump as his target.

“It’s well documented what he’s done,” Evans said. “I’m not going to stand for something I don’t believe in.”

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That principled stand lasted until the next Tuesday, when Evans released a contrite statement: “I want to start by apologizing to all the U.S. military members …”

In the annals of athletic protest, Mike Evans’s name does not ring out. But his apology was a seminal moment – the last time the left retreated under pressure from the right.

The soon-to-end (at least in terms of official titles) Trump era was good to sports. Right up until COVID-19 came down on their business model like a falling piano, everyone was thriving.

An external enemy gave many leagues focus; it bound management and labour together in common cause; and it tightened their collective grip on the imaginations of the young – the most important customer base of any entertainment offering.

By the time things got hairy this past summer, sports was no longer aligned with the protest movement. It was leading it. The NBA in particular has become a sort of political movement in short pants, as though Gold’s Gym started its own party.

Giving it to Trump and his supporters also insulated a group of bajillionaires from the anti-elite sentiment that underpins the progressive left. Somehow, the likes of LeBron James (annual earnings, according to Forbes: US$88-million) are able to project man-of-the-people vibes while maintaining their private-jet privileges.

All of this canny manoeuvring was predicated on outsiderness. Pro athletes – a group about as 1-per-center as it gets – got to have it both ways as long as they railed against an unpopular sitting establishment. At least, unpopular in the places athlete-moguls make their money (Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Fifth Avenue, etc.). Sports had figured out how to turn the counter-culture into a profit driver.

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Well, bad news – they won. Trump’s done. And now things start getting complicated.

With Trump in place, the sports world’s messaging was controlled by a hive mind. It wasn’t hard to figure out the right things to say: ‘Trump is bad’, ‘Police brutality is worse’, ‘It’s time for change’, ‘We have to work together’.

These are not exactly nuanced ideas. Saying them requires zero understanding of policy issues. It’s simple to slap a slogan on the back of a jersey. It’s simpler still to point at a teammate who seems to better understand what’s what when it comes time to speak.

For most participants, this wasn’t about convincing anyone of anything. It was about fighting for your side. Nobody understands combat better than elite athletes. It’s what they do for a living.

Now that Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States, leagues and the athletes who play in them have a decision to make. Now that our side has the top job, is the fight over? There are as many ways to answer that question as people you could ask.

Presumably, some will continue publicly hitting just as hard at systemic problems that aren’t solved magically by moving a Democrat into the White House.

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Others may declare victory and move on.

Others still may simply be tired of being de facto spokespeople for this or that cause, and want to get back to the simple life.

And – here’s where it gets dicey – may now be emboldened to go off-brand.

Over the past few years, big leagues figured out how to stop dissent – you don’t stop it all. You just make sure it looks a lot like consensus.

They presented an easy-to-understand story of good guys (us) vs. bad guys (everyone who doesn’t agree with us). They turned America into a two-team league, and invited everyone (and their money) to sign with them.

So when we analogize entire teams of players and staff kneeling during the anthems with Muhammad Ali being criminally charged and stripped of his titles for refusing the draft, the comparison doesn’t hold.

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Current athletic protests build up the business of sport. Ali was trying to tear it down. One is smart marketing, the other takes guts.

What the people who own sports teams (man, have they ever got off easy in all of this) should fear now is that they have created a generation of Alis.

For the better part of four years, athletes have been told that speaking out on social issues that matter to them isn’t just permissible, but compulsory. A bunch of guys raised on “Shut up and play” just made a hairpin turn into “Tell us how you feel.”

One thing kept that ad-hoc and very public group-therapy session from becoming messy – Donald J. Trump. He’s the Vladimir Lenin in this story. Once he’s gone, prepare for an outbreak of ruthless factionalism in the leftist circles sports has embraced.

In the past, sports leagues negotiated these eruptions of athlete protest with appeals to capitalism. Sure, you may feel strongly about Issue X, but you like money more, don’t you? Most players decided they did. The ones who didn’t were seen as malcontents or oddballs.

That’s out the window now. Every league crumbled this summer under pressure to put politics front and centre. You’re not putting that genie back in the bottle, not with social media sitting there as an alternate broadcasting platform. Woe betide the league that tries to shut anyone up these days. Whatever that guy is yelling about will lead the news cycle for days.

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What comes next is dissent, the uncontrollable sort, the kind that risks turning off your customers. Eventually, activist players may decide their allegiances don’t line up with their employer’s. One WNBA team, the Atlanta Dream, spent the past few months trying to unseat the owner, Republican senator Kelly Loeffler. (Loeffler is headed to a run-off against a candidate supported by WNBA players.) Imagine that sort of dissent spreading into other leagues.

This all has the potential for complete chaos, which sounds like more fun than another season of fan-free baseball. Sports wanted a political awakening and, for its sins, it got one.

If sports was at war with Trump, then what comes next must necessarily resemble peace. And, as Nietzsche said, in times of peace, the warlike man attacks himself.

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