Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Kelly: Pro athletes take a pass on criticizing Donald Trump

On Sunday, Mike Evans – a vaguely recognizable receiver on a not-so-great NFL team – decided he was going to make a statement about U.S. president-elect Donald Trump. He was alone in that.

"I'm not gonna stand for somebody I don't believe in," Evans said after taking a seat during The Star-Spangled Banner. "I won't stand any more."

Evans seemed sincere, but his explanation suggested he doesn't understand what the anthem represents. Then he told someone on social media that he hadn't bothered to vote.

Story continues below advertisement

By Wednesday, he'd walked the whole thing back. In a mea culpa sent to ESPN, Evans apologized to veterans and said, "This Sunday, I will be back standing with my teammates."

I'm not sure what the military has to do with it, but its function in the new new republic seems to be providing political cover for all sides of the debate. Did something stupid? Just mention how much you love and respect the veterans. That'll shut everyone up.

What's most notable about Evans's stand is how completely he misjudged the mood of his peers. The incipient political consciousness among pro athletes, so evident just weeks ago, is already fading. It has been replaced by a business-minded caution.

A day after Trump was elected, there were some small tremors of dissent on practice courts and in locker rooms, though nothing substantial enough to rattle a teacup in the team cafeteria. Most of it was the verbal equivalent of a long sigh.

LeBron James, the most recognizable athlete in America, was concerned enough about Trump that he stumped for Hillary Clinton. A week in, he was busy picking a semantic fight with Phil Jackson over the use of the word "posse."

The movement that might have been is already falling to infighting, apathy and obscurantism.

Whatever this election has revealed about the fraying state of the American community, it's being received in the sports world as a marketing bulletin: "Remember that whatever you say on this subject is guaranteed to enrage half your customers. One half or the other."

Story continues below advertisement

That's resonating in a way opposition to immigration reform does not. One supposes this is an unforeseen effect of the salary-cap world. In recent decades, players have linked financial arms with owners in an unprecedented way, since their wages are benchmarked by league revenues.

Few super-rich people have ever been interested in tearing down the system. Fewer still are so motivated when they get points off the top. Under those circumstances, it's best to seem all things to all people and, at first opportunity, start talking about giving it 110 per cent out there.

With the players having decided to take a different sort of knee, the ground was left to unexpected proxies.

Thus far, the two great celebrity representatives of the new polarities of American life are San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

Until recently, they were a bit of a pair. Both are at the top of their respective sports; both are managerial iconoclasts; both have cultivated reputations as misanthropes.

If the coaching cult of the last few decades had two standard-bearers, it was these two men. They'd made themselves bigger than any player.

Story continues below advertisement

As such, they stand outside the system, unfireable and immune to fashion.

Popovich took up against both Trump and Trumpism, haranguing the new president with an eloquence that has been absent from the mounting hysteria of the left.

"My big fear is – we are Rome," Popovich said. It was the kind of catastrophism that people on one side were anxious to hear, but done with some wit.

Belichick was cagier. He allowed it to be known that he had sent a letter of support to Trump.

"Our friendship goes back many years," Belichick said. "My comments are not politically motivated."

It wasn't much, and it was also a whole lot. Days into this, Belichick remains the only non-crazy/non-political hack who's put his arms around Trump.

So as far as the public record is concerned, Belichick is the next president of the United States's only real pal.

The two approaches spoke to many things: the very different ways the NBA and NFL see themselves in reference to power; where the middle-of-the-road battle lines will be drawn; and the way the debates of the next four years will be framed.

Either you believe in the narrative of decline of empire, or you trust that the machinery of American democracy is too vast and intricate to be sabotaged by one man. (And, hey, don't worry so much. The one famous guy who'll admit to knowing him just told you he's a hell of a lot of fun in a golfing foursome.)

And that's it. There's no more to come, because were it coming, it would already have arrived. The people with the real platform – the players – are going back to work. Let's talk about something important – like the spread offence.

Having done their respective bit, Popovich and Belichick also retreated into the comforting language of wins and losses – just what the nearly half of eligible Americans who didn't bother voting like to hear when things get a little too real.

So this is what sports have decided they are going to be during the Trump administration – distractions.

They will continue holding their hands to their hearts during the anthem. They'll keep honouring the troops mid-game and doing flyovers at the Super Bowl. They'll return to all the consoling "greatest country in the world" symbolism while the nation is in the midst of shaking itself apart.

Most importantly, professional sports and the vast majority of their stakeholders will put their faith in the certain knowledge that while bread may be increasingly hard to come by, the circus will always do well in hard times.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to