Archive for the ‘Pro Athlete Opinions’ Category

I’ve long thought that professional athletes should be more outspoken about and involved in politics. I understand why they generally shy away from it, but few people have the type of platform that athletes have. They can reach a diverse and broad group of people, but all too often they’ve shied away from harnessing all of that power to fight for social justice, instead choosing to “stick to sports.” I’m not surprised that that has begun to change under President Trump. There were plenty of problems with society before Trump and there will be after him, but it’s a lot easier to fight for justice when the president is blatantly prejudiced and has aligned himself with alt-righters and white supremacists (tuh-MAY-toh, tuh-MAH-toh… that doesn’t work quite as well in print). So while I’m pleased by the (probably temporary) breakdown of “stick to sports,” I’m not shocked by it. What shocks me is that the NFL is leading the charge.

The NFL is a very conservative league. That’s partly because players have a lot of money, but it has more to do with the fact that many players come from smaller towns and/or rural areas. Per WSJ, one in four Americans come from cities with fewer than 50,000 people, but among NFL players that balloons to nearly 50% (the NBA, meanwhile, is 28%, while even MLB is only 38%). And it’s a decidedly southern league. About 40% of NFL players come from the South, with Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, etc. all being vastly overrepresented in the league. That’s more than twice as many as come from the Northeast. NFL locker rooms are also incredibly fragile. It’s not just that NFL players generally don’t make public statements; they also rarely talk about politics in private. I don’t believe that that is because they don’t care, or that all they care about is football. Rather, it’s because NFL locker rooms are tricky places where different position groups — and sometimes, white and black players — rarely speak to each other and sometimes even harbor dislike for each other. Defensive backs are more like wide receivers than they are like offensive linemen. That’s a generalization, but it also makes sense: both play glamour positions, while linemen… don’t. I’m not saying that this is a bad or unnatural thing, but rather that it makes it difficult to maintain a unified locker room, which in turn disincentivizes comments that can be interpreted as “divisive.” That may also be true in locker rooms or dugouts in other sports, which is one reason I understand the hesitance of athletes to speak out, but I think it’s especially true in football.

It goes beyond the players, too. Whereas the NBA has younger owners who come more often from technology than they do from oil, NFL ownership is older and decidedly more oily. There’s one non-white owner in the NFL, and that’s Shahid Kahn, who donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. In total, nine NFL owners gave at least $250,000 to Trump. Barring Jerry Jones (Mr. Classy), all nine spoke out against Trump’s comments (generally softly, but still) this weekend in what was a remarkable showing of unity. You have to hand it to Mr. Trump: not many people can make Commish Roger Goodell and NFLPA head honcho DeMaurice Smith agree on anything.

Remember, while Colin Kaepernick and a few others have been protesting and speaking out since the beginning of last year, that’s been the vast minority, and NFL owners have done more to stanch the protests than to support them, as they’ve refused to give Kaepernick another job (I don’t know and kind of doubt that it’s a league-wide conspiracy, but that fact is that Kaepernick deserves an NFL job and doesn’t have one). Outside of the select few, the players were almost silent before this weekend. This weekend, everything changed. Trump said a lot of stuff about the NFL and the anthem protests, but most of the stream-of-consciousness tweets were same old, same old. I think there were two things that were new, and two things that brought on this avalanche of backlash. The first was Trump’s “son of a bitch” comment about Kaepernick, and the second was that he tweeted multiple times that players who “disrespect” the flag should be “fired” (a term that serves as a clear sign that he’s no sports fan, by the way). This weekend, Trump threatened NFL players’ livelihoods and their First Amendment rights and called one of them a son of a bitch, and that seems to have been the final straw for a lot of players and even some owners.

There are a few ways things can go from here. I think it’s important to note that a lot of the snippets that came from NFL players, owners, and the commissioner were far from courageous. I’m sorry, but calling Trump’s comments “divisive” and leaving it at that just doesn’t do anything for me. That’s what I like to call a good, old-fashioned cop-out. Baby steps, though. Last time this blew up was when Kaepernick began kneeling during the anthem, an act that was in fact courageous (regardless of whether you agree with kneeling during the anthem, you must admit it was brave). At the time, I expected things to blow over, because the NFL is the predominant “stick to sports” league and because most players will always choose football over political statements. For the most part, I think I was right. People talked about Kaepernick kneeling, but the protests didn’t pick up steam as the season continued, and Kaepernick is no longer on an NFL roster. How about this time? Are we going to see this revolt or faux-revolt (I maintain that it’s closer to a shoulder-shrug, especially from the owners) snowball in future weeks? If we’re talking about the NFL as a whole, I’m afraid the answer will again be no. The league is too conservative (as in both right-wing and cautious). But I do think that more individual players will continue to protest the anthem and speak out against the president, because I really do believe that this has been the breaking point for a lot of players.

Big picture, the really important questions are: outside of the anthem protests and hard or soft criticisms of Donald Trump, how will the players seek to make a difference? And will the general football-adoring public be receptive? I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a more coordinated effort by players — both in the NFL and other leagues — to make a difference off the field (perhaps through foundations?). It’s going to be really interesting to see where this goes in the next few weeks and years. Calling Donald Trump divisive is easy. Now comes the hard part.