November 2016 had all the makings of a great month. The Cubs had started it off with a history-making World Series win, which would have carried me happily through the next 28 days — until it was quickly overshadowed by the election of Donald Trump. For me, that World Series win and presidential loss were inextricably linked — and more than just by temporal proximity.
The Cubs are owned by the Ricketts family, who donated to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, a fact that troubled me deeply when I found out. It didn’t matter as much when I was certain that Hillary Clinton would be our next president, but when Trump won it became a devastating link.
Once Trump was elected, that link would be just one of many in a vast web — an indication that sports and politics could no longer be separated.
The part that people often forget is that sports and politics have always been related. Jackie Robinson pushed for civil rights on perhaps the most visible stage when he joined the MLB in 1947, Muhammed Ali boycotted the Vietnam War draft and was an outspoken figure in the anti-war movement and Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics — the list could go on and on.
But it is undeniable that there is something different now, and it has to do with the ever-present lack of distinction between where sports start and politics end. Since last November our athletes, both famous and obscure, have engaged in our nation’s political conversation with both increased frequency and gravity. National anthem protests, spurred by Colin Kaepernick, have spread through the NFL. Female athletes have come out repeatedly to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault through the “#MeToo” movement.
While this type of political participation has picked up since Trump’s election, it began to occur with more frequency during the election cycle itself — indeed since Trump’s entrance onto the U.S. political stage. This is because of Trump’s rhetoric of blatant discrimination that harkens back to earlier times in our history when intolerance was unrestrained.
The fact that this type of rhetoric is being reintroduced at a time when so many strides have been made for previously marginalized groups — like women, African Americans and the LGBTQ+ community — makes it all the more necessary to combat it. Many citizens have taken up the fight against this inflammatory speech, but athletes in particular have stepped up to the challenge.
With their prominence in the public eye and their ability to reach a large audience, athletes, coaches and commentators have begun to counteract the rise of nationalist and nativist politics that have seeped into mainstream American politics. LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Gregg Popovich — who recently referred to Trump as a “soulless coward” are perhaps the most famous instances of key NBA figures overtly opposing Trump’s policies, but there are lesser-known athletes as well.
Ibtihaj Muhammad, a fencer who became the first female Muslim American to win a medal for the United States at the 2016 Olympics, spoke out against Trump’s proposed travel ban and voiced the widespread discrimination that Muslims face in the United States. Karl-Anthony Towns, who plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves, decried Trump’s reaction to Charlottesville, saying “Our president was given a layup: Denounce white supremacists. And he couldn’t … and wouldn’t. He missed … he missed badly.”
The high profiles of many of these athletes, the admiration that they receive from people on both sides of the political aisle, makes them the perfect leaders for political outspokenness. In many ways they are immune in ways that other public figures are not — fans have not abandoned the Warriors because Curry refused to attend the White House, resulting in a scuffle of words with Trump. This allows their words to be more widely received without as much fear of retribution, which is hugely important as those who speak out against the president are finding themselves increasingly in more dangerous situations.
Those who argue that our athletes should merely “stick to sports” are overlooking the fact that every citizen of the United States is entitled to a political opinion and voice. Towns sums this up perfectly: “And to anyone who says, ‘Stick to sports’ … let’s be real: Our president used to host a reality TV show. You’re telling me I can’t voice a political opinion?”
As Trump has appeared to normalize instances of sexual harassment and assault, male and female athletes have denounced the language that Trump so brashly brushed off as merely “locker room talk.” Doc Rivers said in response, “Is there swearing in the locker room? Yeah. Every other word. But there’s nobody demeaning — there’s players in our locker room with sisters, wives and daughters. There’s not that type of talk in anyone’s locker room.”
Female athletes have gained momentum as well over the course of these last 364 days. With Trump’s ascension to power also came derogatory discourse about women as well as an attempt to seize the control over their bodies that women have fought so long to gain. WNBA star Breanna Stewart has been outspoken in her support for Planned Parenthood and vocal about her experience with sexual abuse. As young women grow up in a time where Trump and his lewd comments are associated with masculine power it is important, now more than ever, that strong female athletes demonstrate that that type of behavior will not be taken lightly.
Here’s the interesting thing about sports: they are so clearly a microcosm for much of what happens in our world. They highlight the complex dynamics of race, gender, sexuality and socioeconomics in our society, mores that were brushed under the rug in an attempt to keep our atmosphere of athletics untainted. Trump’s election, which was the culmination of a long-forming trend towards hyper-nationalist and exclusionary politics in the United States, has meant that these issues can longer brushed aside in the world of sports. It is a testament to our athletes that they have stepped up to the challenge of speaking up and speaking out amidst the volatile environment of our nation’s politics.
I guess one year later I have one positive thing to say about Trump’s presidency, although it is sadly a result of the hatred he has promulgated: it has awakened our nation’s collective political consciousness and spurred us into becoming more actively involved in the conversation, and the political participation of our athletes is emblematic of that very upward trend.
Sophie Goethals is the assistant sports editor. Contact her at [email protected]