The Policital Case for Sports to be Apolitical
At this point, the belief that sports should remain apolitical is, well, a political belief. Perhaps even an extreme one. ESPN has become saturated in leftwing politics, even going so far as to highlight the poem of a cop killer in an article featured on ESPN that would have seemed like complete parody just a few years ago “Five Poets on the New Feminism.”
Yes, “the worldwide leader in sports” wants to tell you about feminist jam poetry or something.
Last weekend, this newly hyper-politicized sports scene reached it apogee after Donald Trump said at a rally “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He is fired.’”
That was either an off-the-cuff remark or a brilliant trick, but it got huge numbers of players to kneel during the anthem during last Sunday’s games. The Dallas Cowboys kneeled in unison and the entire Pittsburgh Steelers team didn’t even come out of the locker room for the National Anthem, other than former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva. He later apologized for respecting the American flag, although it appeared to be forced contrition.
Many athletes have been accusing Trump of being “divisive” and while that’s a defensible position, it’s hard to see how that’s not like the pot calling the kettle black.
After all, the NFL is the same institution that allows someone to disrespect the flag while on the clock for its employer in a job that he makes millions and millions of dollars, while it fines players who want to honor 9/11 or cops who were murdered in the line of duty.
And ESPN has made it blatantly obvious that if you are a conservative or a libertarian, its programming is not for you.
Now corporations are private companies and can do what they want as liberals (who hated corporations five years ago) like to tell us. And no one can, nor should, stop professional athletes from becoming politically active. But my plea, particularly to ESPN, the NFL and other sports institutions would be for them to stop being politically active. And my reasoning is political.
You may have heard that the United States is divided. You’ll see Pew Research Center reports titled “Sharp Partisan Divisions in Views of National Institutions,” “Highly negative views of the opposing party — and its members” and “America’s political divisions in 5 charts.” Spoiler: all the charts show the American population becoming more divided.
There are a lot of reasons that this divide is growing, but one of them is that we just don’t talk to each other anymore. The Internet has made it very easy to find information that confirms your own biases. I would argue that this is especially true of the Left, since the popular culture (such as sports) also confirms their biases. As do the late-night liberal evangelical preachers comedians such as John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel and Trevor Noah.
Even still, it’s not hard for conservatives to ghettoize themselves into an echo chamber as well.
When it comes to learning about the other side’s opinion, most seem to educate themselves on their opponent’s views through critique of those views. In the end, as CGP Grey noted, people in opposing groups “…don’t really argue with each other, they mostly argue with themselves about how angry the other group makes them.”
Of course there’s nothing wrong with conservative or liberal websites and the like. The problem is when society becomes ghettoized into various factions who never talk to each other but nevertheless, hate each other’s guts.
Check out the graph that was developed from a recent study, which depicts Twitter “messages containing moral and emotional language, and their retweet activity, across all political topics (gun control, same-sex marriage, climate change).” There is one giant red blob and one giant blue blob. In between are a few small lines. Those lines probably represent the occasional critique of the other side that each blob gets its idea of what the other evil blob is up to.
For anyone living in such an echo chamber, the only thing to become is more radical.
I don’t have some magic formula to fix this, but I will say that one of the best ways to smooth things over is to have things that liberals and conservatives can talk to each other about that don’t involve politics.
I remind you that one of those Pew polls found that Americans had very highly negative views of the opposing party’s members, not just that party. I don’t see us finding much common ground until we can at least stop hating each other.
It reminds me of a scene from City Slickers. Two of the men are having a high-spirited debate about some trivial baseball related issue. One of the lady’s then interrupts with “Ugh, baseball.”
“You’ve got something against baseball?” One of the men responds.
“No, I like baseball,” she answers. “I just never understood how you guys could spend so much time discussing it. I mean, I’ve been to games, but I don’t memorize who played third base for Pittsburgh in 1960.”
Then the character Phil responds with what might be the most poignant point in what was otherwise just a fun comedy,
“You’re right I suppose, I mean, I guess it is childish. But when I was about 18 and my dad and I couldn’t communicate about anything at all, we could still talk about baseball. Now that — that was real.”
Sports should be something where people of wildly different political persuasions can come together and root for or against the same team. It should be a topic of banal conversation that can allow conservatives and liberals to recognize each other’s common humanity. Then, once the conversation switches to politics, they can at least argue with each other knowing that the other person, no matter how wrong, is at least coming from a well-intentioned place. Sports should be a political lubricant.
Sports — and many other things such as, I don’t know… late night variety shows — must remain, or more accurately become apolitical in order to create areas of mutual interests amongst various political factions. They must be neutral to bring people together who otherwise would want nothing to do with each other. For political reasons, sports should remain apolitical.
The NFL and sports networks can accuse Trump of being divisive as much as they want. But when you allow politics to be injected into something that should remain apolitical, you are the one who is being divisive.
And not surprisingly, these institutions are being punished for their leftwing drift. The NFL and ESPN continue to hemorrhage viewers. Let’s hope they either see the error of their ways and return to being apolitical, or that their freefall continues.