Open season: Sports and politics are inseparable

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It has become cliché to point out that millennials prefer not to label themselves as any one thing or as beholden to a particular group or ideology. The fluidity of identity and mix of philosophies that define millennials, however, has now entered the public consciousness and become the dominant school of thought for society writ large.

According to Pew Research Center, the past few years have featured a rise in those who identify as “Spiritual” (up 8 percent) and a decline in traditional religious affiliation (Christianity down 8 percent). In addition, the research consulting company Gallup statistically identified a nation with more political independents than Democrats or Republicans (42 percent to 29 percent and 27 percent respectively) and a minority of individuals who even accept a label, such as “millennial” (only 40 percent of millennials identify as such).

More importantly, it’s how we got a media culture that increasingly refuses to “stick to sports” and athletes who challenge the notion that they should just “shut up and dribble.”

The traditional labels that fenced in sports from music, politics and business were never as neatly boxed apart from one another as we liked to think — but they were given lip service at the very least. America’s foreign policy ethos during the Cold War was that “politics stopped at the water’s edge,” and this principle permeated into the sports realm as well, where the belief seemed to be that “politics stopped at the sideline” or at the press box.

This vision rings idealistic and even quaint in the contemporary environment where the lines between sports, politics and culture are blurring. President Donald Trump has engaged in rhetorical arguments with LeBron James and the Philadelphia Eagles.

He has devoted rallies to the issue of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, tweeted insults directly at particular athletes and even referred to them as “sons of bitches.” As the subjects of presidential speeches and insult, they cease to be merely athletes: they are now cultural figures driving the national conversation.

With this comes a change in the calculation of how sports are covered as a whole. Push too hard on the political side, and media outlets risk alienating their audience (see ESPN), but ignore it altogether, and they face the same fate (also see ESPN). As the popularity of sports has grown, so have the problems, and to ignore them completely would be dishonest and unprofessional but also precarious to address head-on.

This cultural capital that athletes now possess, however, spreads beyond political boundaries. Athletes want to establish themselves as brands with iconic legacies. They want to not only win championships but to “make baseball fun again” as Bryce Harper did, invest in startups as Andre Iguodala did or even win Oscars as Kobe did. Where the trophy used to be the endgame, it is now only the start toward higher levels of distinction and achievement.

The business world has reshaped itself to fit into this new reality. Companies, such as Adidas, have put together a series of marketing campaigns that put athletes and musicians in the same room to portray them as “creators.”

It’s vague and abstract but so is the nature of identity in the modern age. Sure, athletes can create on the court, but they can also do so  in art, business or politics. The most popular American athlete, LeBron James, has branded himself as “More Than An Athlete,” and it seems his peers and corporations have followed suit.

Sports was always a part of culture, but now it’s almost as if sports IS the culture — both reflecting and driving public opinion simultaneously. There are no more borders or labels. There is only a cycle of action and reaction that all come from the same source — the culture.

Rory O’Toole writes the Thursday column about the transformation of athletes and sports media into the cultural conversation. Contact him at [email protected].