Supposed to be easy

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In response to LeBron James’ criticisms of Donald Trump in a video posted on his YouTube, Fox News host Laura Ingraham stated that it was “unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid 100 million to bounce a ball.”

Funnily enough, I would say that it is unwise to get news — and political advice — from a woman who gets paid millions to be a Trump propaganda machine. I guess, to each their own.

But more importantly, Ingraham’s comments about the separation of James’ basketball career from his political opinion are worthless. Here we are, reporting both on sports and politics. Furthermore, sports have never existed in a separate sphere than politics.

For those who might be confused, let me make this clear: This is a sports column, not a political one.

Nevertheless, as we’ve entered a harrowing trend of invalidating athletes who choose to enter the political conversation, it is important to not only understand how both sports and politics intersect daily, but how the rhetoric of “stick to sports” reinforces the foundational hatred causing the controversies.

Sports are supposed to be easier than this.

The rules are predetermined, athletic skill can be quantified, and the expectations from fans and athletes are clear — win. Now add layers of social justice — layers that call into question individual ethics and morals — and the relationship between players’ and fans’ expectations not only changes but is inconsistent.

Winners are positioned on a spectrum between physical aptitude and their fans’ values, exposing the underlying violent rhetoric that has always attacked athletes redefining activism.

Historically, this has always been the case. See Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, among others.

So why the hostility toward athletes again? It is too easy to blame Trump, an unprecedented force of bigotry, as the culprit.

The cumbersome blame instead rests with diverse fan bases’ expectations of being American, exposing decades of (mostly) repressed racism, sexism and bigotry while simultaneously separating the experience of being an athlete from the experience of equality in politics.

This is how Ingraham was able to use racism to invalidate James’ right of political opinion. After telling LeBron to “shut up and dribble,” Ingraham held that her sentiment was not racist, as she had used the phrase on other left-wing celebrities.

This is how conservatives were able to weaponize patriotism to defeat the NFL kneeling protest. Ousted Fox News correspondent Bill O’Reilly stated that “President Trump never mentioned race when he called out the NFL because it has nothing to do with race.”

This is how Mike Pence activated and validated the hatred experienced by Adam Rippon and Lindsey Vonn at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.

Rippon, the first openly gay U.S. male athlete to win an Olympic medal, spoke out against Pence’s problematic legacies of homophobia. Leading up to the Olympics, Rippon faced an onslaught of homophobic tweets from Twitter users and even an insult from none other than Donald Trump Jr.

After failing to medal in the women’s super giant slalom, Vonn faced similar cruelty as Trump supporters likened her failure to karma after she had said previously stated she would not visit the White House if she won a gold.

Herein lies the problem: pundits such as O’Reilly, Trump Jr., and Ingraham dominate narratives with a binary view of sports that separates entities of physical success and social equality, with athletes who bridge the gap being punished.

Ironically, their narrative encourages the cycle of hatred that athletes continue to speak out against and responses they choose to criticize.

O’Reilly, Trump Jr. and Ingraham do not realize that they have had the privilege of ignoring the difficulties presented by intersections of sports and politics. While the truth is that sports were meant to be easier, it is important that they are not and that they continue to seep into the political landscape.

Alicia Sadowski writes the Thursday column about the intersection of sports and politics. Contact her at [email protected].