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OPINION: The intersectionality between politics and sports

CHICAGO — I was listening to ​Pod Save America​ on Spotify a few days ago while out on my daily walk, strolling past house after house of Buffalo Grove’s version of suburban paradise. One of the show’s hosts said something along the lines of “political races are now covered like sports journalism,” which intrigued me curious and had me thinking.

Two of my favorite topics of discussion to talk about amongst my peers, colleagues, classmates, and family are sports and politics. And rarely had I ever considered the notion that these two topics would share similar journalistic principles. While “politics” and “sports” are somewhat vague topics of conversation, each has their own intricacies and unique components to each which add depth to the topics.

It is not merely speaking about “sports” but rather debate about whether LeBron James or Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever. It is not merely speaking about “politics” but rather debate about whether Black Lives Matter protestors are patriots or vigilantes.

With the lack of sporting events going on day to day, as we are not too accustomed to in the United States, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than ever are sports programs on Fox Sports 1 and ESPN are turning to discussing political events in context with the sports world. While most of these politically driven discussions all resort back to their effect on sports, the sentiment for the broader societal impact is there nonetheless.

ESPN’s ​First Take​ is normally a show held to heated “debates” (if you want to call that debating but I digress) between the esteemed and outspoken Stephen A. Smith and the less popular but gratified boxing commentator Max Kellerman. And throughout the course of each major American sport season, for two hours each morning, both Smith and Kellerman go back and forth discussing topics in the sports news world, each time disagreeing with one another.

During this pandemic, that luxury of always having a hot, new topic for “debate” each day is thrown aside. How much can a show like this continue on, discussing sports and such, without the sports?

Well obviously, there are the recurring storylines of “when will sports return?” or “how can sports return as soon as possible and safely?” and that is fine and dandy and all. But the reality does not escape us all that after being confined to our houses and apartments for so long. No one really knows.

So what these major sports networks have taken up is the political ramifications and the involvement of political movements, political figures, policy, the pandemic, etc., and the impact that poses to sports. Let me give you several examples to assemble this point.

Oftentimes in history, there is the intersection between political circumstances and the grandeur of athletic competition. Many see athletes as larger than life, myself included. And in doing so, athletes are only viewed through the lens of their profession rather than the depth of their personality as a human being.

Athletes now have this platform due to their elite status and the way they are idolized to be able to show some more of their personal side, and their beliefs and backgrounds that define them.

At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, following a 200 meter race, as the “Star Spangled Banner” played over the loudspeakers of Olympic Stadium, American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos sported black gloves and raised a fist, showing defiance of the conventional “hand over heart” response most athletes pose to the anthem. Smith maintains the gesture was as a symbol of support to human rights.

While both Smith and Carlos were later commemorated for their bravery and courage, following such an action, both were largely cast aside and scrutinized by a white America ready to elect Richard Nixon as president.

In 1936, Jesse Owens won four gold medals in track competing in Hitler’s Berlin games. And while many prominent black athletes worldwide protested the games by refusing to show up at all due to the fervent anti-Semitism and racism coming from Germany’s Nazi regime, Owens decided to show up. Owens, by showing up and winning four gold medals as a black athlete at Hitler’s games, a contest geared by him to show off a fictional Aryan superiority dispelled the racist myth.

While Owens had stuck it to fascist Germany at the Olympics, that accolade was largely tossed aside once he returned home. To America, Jesse Owens was just another black man in a segregated country.

Most famously, in 2016, former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, started kneeling while the national anthem was being played prior to football games to protest racial injustice, police brutality, and systematic oppression that goes on in this country.

To the dismay of politicians, especially President Trump, Kaepernick was cast out and looked down upon as disrespectful to the troops and the flag.

And while there are plenty of other prominent examples of such political interactions intersecting into the sports world, we now arrive in 2020 where both politics and sports have come together in many respects. Following the death of George Floyd, prominent athletes across the United States have used their platforms to speak up about the same issues that Kaepernick kneeled for just four years ago. Athletes like Celtics forward Jaylen Brown, Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, and Lakers forward Lebron James have protested, spoken up, and put money where their mouths are and injected themselves into the center of the Black Lives Matter movement, now the largest civil movement in American history.

In fact, when the NBA kicks back off later this month in the “Orlando Bubble,” players will be allowed to wear statements on their uniforms in unison to now universally recognized Black Lives Matter phrases such as simply “Black Lives Matter” or “Say her name” (to recognize the death of Breonna Tayler and protesting how those who killed her were not arrested).

The Black Lives Matter movement also has put the entire sports world in a unique spot: support or deflect. Sports leagues can either come out in support of the movement and garnish a larger, newer share of popularity or can deflect away from the movement, much to the approval of a President Trump, and be pushed into a new spotlight of scrutiny. The NBA chooses the path of support.

In the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), in the first game of the season, the ​North Carolina Courage and the Portland Thorns players all kneeled together through the playing of the national anthem, in an empty stadium in Utah. This statement was not only in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and their platform for change, but was the same protest that Colin Kaepernick started in the 2016 preseason.

NASCAR, a sport popular in the south and which has tolerated Confederate imagery, chose full-fledged support to the Black Lives Matter movement. This charge led by their only black driver, Bubba Wallace. As well, in the wake of the George Floyd protests, NASCAR banned the Confederate flag at all races henceforth.

Right after the announcement, Bubba Wallace’s crew found a noose hanging in his garage at Talladega Superspeedway. While an FBI investigation found no foul play at hand, Wallace nevertheless commented on a CNN interview with Don Lemon that “It was a noose. ​It wasn't directed at me, but someone tied a noose. It is a noose."

Bubba Wallace may not know it now but he will become another figure in the long, complicated history between political movements and sports leagues. And it is good that he does get recognized for the character he is displaying.

Bubba Wallace is another athlete in a list getting larger by the day that has blurred the line between the athletic competition aspect of sports and the ability to use that podium athletes have to fight for the change they want to see. And while many will not understand how important that blurring is, let me put it into perspective.

In 2016, when Colin Kaepernick first started to take a knee, a mere 38% of Americans supported the action. In 2020, that number has moved up to 52%. A majority of Americans now support this type of protest.

And across the world, athletes playing in different countries of different races and cultures are putting “Black Lives Matter” on the sleeves of their jerseys and are kneeling in support while the anthem is played before or after events. Just four years ago, this type of political protest so invigorated throughout sports would never even be considered possible.

Bubba Wallace, in a sport largely recognized as less progressive in adapting to political correctness than most, has flipped that notion on its head. While this mass movement certainly did not start with Kaepernick taking a knee, he was the catalyst. While Wallace is not the only prominent athlete speaking out right now, he rightfully gets credit for bringing the movement into the sport where this might not have been thought possible.

A pandemic has closed the ability of many sports fans to be able to watch live sporting events. With these now huge holes of airtime, sports networks like ESPN have dedicated much more of their time to covering the pandemic and its effect on sports, the pandemic and its effect on athletes, and the protests spewed out by the death of George Floyd that had sparked activism from hundreds of athletes across all sports leagues everywhere.

By ESPN covering events like CNN would, but by putting their sports twist on the matter, political and sports reporting are starting to get a little morphed. CNN, for example, still covers news. ESPN still covers sports. But ESPN has found a way to take the news that CNN reports and discuss how it affects athletes. CNN can report that the pandemic is reaching record highs in the cases diagnosed, and ESPN will report how the newly reported record high cases will affect the ability of sports leagues to function. It is a fascinating connection of the two different news venues.

ESPN’s ​First Take​ has adjusted and increasingly has debates on the political ramifications of athletes speaking up and promoting social and political movements. This cannot go unnoticed, nor has it.

With the protests still ongoing, many athletes have dedicated much of their time and energy to fighting for justice and the end of oppression. CNN has covered this, as has ESPN, and that is valuable and important. CNN’s Don Lemon has hosted dozens of different athletes on his show, recently interviewing Lakers center Dwight Howard, to promote their organizations, the movements they participate with, and the changes they want to see happen.

When the NBA picks up in its “Covid proof” bubble, it will be fascinating to observe the ways the athletes come together and use their platform to make widespread societal changes. Dwight Howard has already stated he will be discussing with other players the “Breathe Again” campaign. I’m sure plenty of other players will be doing something similar, which is a very good thing!

The intersection between politics and sports is not new. However, the level to which politics has been integrated into sports today is potentially revolutionary.

I remember just a few years back when Laura Ingraham on her show on Fox News told LeBron James to just shut up and dribble and stop concerning himself with the intricacies of politics after James had discussed in a recent interview the hardship and struggle of being a black, public figure in America. James has been continuing to speak his message on the rampant systemic injustice that continues today, and Ingraham has been largely rebuked. She has not told a black athlete to shut up and do anything since.

Today, much is made on news shows about the value and importance of athletes now using their platform and speaking out, especially while athletes are stuck at home as the coronavirus pandemic rages on. Many support the athletes, many do not.

As we talk much about what a new normal will look like in the post-pandemic world, I have no doubt that a world with sports and politics intertwined together will be included.

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