For millions of people around the world, sports serve as an outlet from the burdens of everyday life. No matter what hardships they are facing, flipping on the television has the ability to teleport fans into another world, where the only thing they care about is watching their team win. So in a time like now, when ESPN and Twitter are filled with athletes speaking up against racism and police brutality, some fans are not happy that sports are “becoming too political.”
In the age of social media, fans have the opportunity to get to know athletes deeper than ever before. With that comes the humanization of these players, who have just as many opinions and life experiences as anyone else does. It’s only natural that they feel the urge to voice their thoughts, and they should have every right to do so. But many consumers of sports see these athletes almost as zoo animals, only on this planet to entertain.
Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro even went as far as to contemplate the formation of two different leagues for each sport — one of which would completely ban any political discourse or action. “My place of comfort has been removed from me,” he said on his talk show, “and it may not be restored until there are sports leagues that remove politics from the sports.” For someone who so vehemently supports the 1st Amendment, the ludicrous idea doesn’t quite seem to add up.
The truth is, though, that it doesn’t even need to be that way. Sports can still be enjoyed for what they are, regardless of players’ off-field opinions. If you truly can’t stand players addressing significant issues that plague this country, that’s fine. Don’t go on social media, don’t watch interviews, don’t read sports journalism. It’s a simple solution. If having a player kneel on the sideline during the anthem bothers you that much, then you weren’t watching for the love of the game anyway.
Even I, someone who wholeheartedly believes that every athlete should use their platform to better society, occasionally just want to watch sports purely to take a break from the oft-pessimistic daily news — and I can still do that. Sports are still sports.
Because the actual games aren’t any different than they ever were — once the ball is kicked off or the first pitch is thrown, sports are just as true to themselves as always. Fandom brings together people from completely different races and beliefs, which is why it’s such a powerful unifier in the first place. When a San Francisco bar is filled with die-hard 49ers fans yelling at the TV in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, no one in there cares about politics. The whole building is completely immersed in cheering the team on together, and that will never change.
We’ve seen it countless times throughout history: The entire globe coming together in celebration for the World Cup and Olympics. The historic Yankees vs. White Sox game and ceremony, which occurred just a week after the horrific events of 9/11. The residents of New Orleans bonding through Saints football after Hurricane Katrina devastated their lives.
In today’s world, where the United States is arguably the most divided it has been in decades, especially approaching what is bound to be an incredibly tense election, it is even more important that sports connect us. As leagues start to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic, it will be interesting to see how the intersection between sports and politics has evolved over the past few months.
When November comes around, I hope that players will urge fans to vote, and that they will continue to fight for causes they believe in. But I also hope that once the whistle blows, nobody watching cares who is white or Black, Democratic or Republican, rich or poor. Why not have the best of both worlds?