BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 02/16/2017

Thiel: Getting real with politics as part of sports

One of the hallmarks of sports, from kids to pros, is inclusivity. Which is why the Trump administration’s efforts at exclusion hits sports hard. Sports never was isolated from politics; it sure won’t be now.

When President Trump’s 90-day travel ban was first imposed, police at Sea-Tac airport had to physically remove protesters from the lower concourse as business continued as usual on the upper concourse. / Jon Ostrower, CNN via Twitter

“What else is in his lexicon? Baseball sticks? Football hats? But sure, I’m the foreign one.” — Former president Obama, after Republican senator Ted Cruz called a basketball hoop a “basketball ring.”

For all those who consider sports a haven from the maelstrom, I’m sorry. In the coming months and years, you’ll have better luck getting a dog to stop his bark at ba–.

The convulsions roiling the nation in the first month of the Trump administration will play out in sports, not apart from them. The political conflicts aren’t going to dominate the games, but they will hang in the air, just as they do these days at work, at school, on the bus and the playgrounds.

As in those places, many people will make strong efforts around sports to avoid political subjects, because they dread the encounters with the other side, and the subsequent distraction and perhaps distress.

But it is nearly unavoidable in sports, for one reason: There may be no other high-profile activity in the U.S. that is more inclusive. When Trump’s words and deeds threaten inclusivity, the backlash is and will be pervasive.

From youth leagues to the pros, sports in America are where the greatest assimilation of dissimilar people occurs at the earliest ages. It is where we learn to work together, resolve conflicts and understand the value of rules.

That’s not to say that sports are free of racism, sexism, homophobia and religious prejudice. Hardly. But sports force all those fears into a tie for last, well behind the moments, lessons and people of the game. Sports are often where new ways get tried first, and is guaranteed to get the most attention.

Ask NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

He gets to adjudicate for a curious nation the health consequences of concussions, the risks of performance-enhancing drugs, the horrors of domestic and child abuse as well as bullying, and the navigation of social media in the workplace.

He is spectacularly unqualified to deal with any of those things. But he is stuck. His industry is, for better or worse, one from which many people take their cues.

He gets one break: Pro football players are overwhelmingly born and raised in the U.S.  Even so, Goodell’s sport begat the anthem kneel-down that protested domestic social injustice, which quickly spread to many high schools across the U.S. He can’t escape social and political forces.

In pro basketball, pro baseball, pro soccer and a variety of college sports, rosters are loaded with athletes of international origin, which realistically includes every one of us that isn’t a Native American.

When restrictions threaten sports’ inclusiveness, such as Trump’s proposed 90-day ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, sports feels it quickly. While federal courts, starting with one in Seattle, intervened to stay the executive order, Trump indicated he may try a revised version. Who knows what that will look like?

Quickly after the attempted ban, the MLS Players Union issued a statement expressing extreme disappointment, and U.S. Men’s National Team captain Michael Bradley said he felt “sad and embarrassed.” Seattle Reign midfielder Megan Rapinoe tweeted: “To stay silent is to stand with the oppressor. That isn’t my America.’’

On the Sounders’ 27-man roster are nine athletes born in eight countries besides the U.S. — Uruguay (two), Jamaica, Switzerland, Trinidad & Tobago, Ghana, Cameroon and Panama. None of the countries are on the original banned list. But it’s early.

Besides the travel ban, looming on the horizon is Trump’s infamous wall, perhaps of more interest to the Mariners.

On their 40-man roster of the moment — presuming GM Jerry Dipoto has to sleep sometime — are 13 players born in nine countries aside from the U.S.: Dominican Republic (three), Cuba (three), and one each from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Japan, Canada, Brazil and Panama.

It’s not that any of the Mariners bearing green cards are threatened. But they have friends, family members, businesses and national pride that will feel impacts of border regulation by the clumsiest and most ineffective of means.

More immediately, the fifth World Baseball Classic begins March 6, when the U.S. team and 15 other nations around the world likely will bear witness, via signs in the stands and protests in the streets, to people with political statements using sports to reach audiences via TV and internet in the U.S. as well as their homelands.

The fact is, sports have never been apart from politics. From the nationalism in the first modern Olympics in 1896 to Seattle’s current arena quest to get back the NBA, from Jesse Owens to Jackie Robinson to John Carlos to Muhammad Ali to Ping-Pong diplomacy to Billie Jean King to Title IX to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, politics and and the people and institutions of sports have been tightly intertwined.

Yes, sometimes it spoils the fun. But every time you feel some resentment boiling up, please tell it to athletes whose lifetime Olympics ambitions were thwarted by the successive boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Olympics ordered by the U.S. and Soviet governments.

In early January at a Town Hall event about sports and politics, Michael Bennett, one of the Seahawks’ most outspoken players, was asked why he just doesn’t shut up about political and social issues.

“When people want us to be part of brands just to sell things, it makes me go crazy,” he said. “When it comes time to do things that are great, they won’t let you do it. But when it’s time to sell something, everyone encourages you to do it.

“Most of the time, people want to consider the athletes as just a part of the sport. They forget we’re human beings, part of society. We can’t take ourselves out of it simply because we’ve made money (from sports success), or because we have a lot of fans, or we do nice things. We have families affected by social issues. I think it’s stupid that they want us to be not part of it.

“We have such a great platform to be able to share interests and messages, and help change lives. It’s a responsibility we’re capable of.”

Stick to sports? We can’t have one without the other. It isn’t always bad.

Having borne live witness to the Opening Ceremony at nine Olympics, I can say there is no greater majesty in human group endeavor than in the moments before the Olympic flame is lit.

To sweep one’s eyes across the floor and stands of a giant stadium and realize parts of entire globe were there, willing to suspend decades and even centuries of enmity, jealousy and contempt, in order to play, was always a colossal salute to the best of humanity.

Without the politics to overcome, it would be just another halftime show.

 


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YourThoughts

  • 1coolguy

    “‘If You Are Not a Liberal When You Are Young, You Have No Heart, and If You Are Not a Conservative When Old, You Have No Brain’” This quote has been used over the ages and will ring true forever. Let’s remember, having read this, athletes are always of the younger age and their comments should be viewed in light of this centuries old quote.
    Eventually they too will gain wisdom.

    • Jamo57

      Here’s another quote:

      “We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us, and make us kinder. You always have the choice.”

      -The Dalai Lama

      • art thiel

        Almost always, it is a choice. Thanks for passing along.

    • Pixdawg13

      I hope you heed the Dalai Lama’s words Jamo57 posted. I was far more conservative in my twenties than I am now, in my seventies.

      • Jamo57

        In my case, I’m trying to use them to simply be more understanding of those with different points of view than mine. At some point we have to find a path away from the division we find ourselves in and back towards some sort of pluralistic society. The labels of “liberals”, “conservatives”, “left wing”, “right wing” create a mental fog that gets in the way. “Human Being” and then “Fellow American” are about as far as I want to go these days.

        • art thiel

          Unfortunately, too many of us want things simplified. Gray is a much more difficult color that black or white, red or blue.

        • Kevin Lynch

          Excellent comment again.

    • Joe_Fan

      There he goes again, 1dumbguy providing us with his infinite wisdom.

      • art thiel

        Request, Joe: No name-calling or other adolescent stuff.

        • Joe_Fan

          Noted sorry Art.

  • Greg

    The best in sports journalism! Thanks Art, spot on!

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  • ReebHerb

    Nah. A retired high school athletic director was marveling after a recent wrestling tournament over the good sportsmanship of the participants. No stare downs. No back alley intimidation. No in your face celebrations. Hearty handshakes and congratulatory hugs were the order of the day. A new day is dawning. Sherman’s schtick is old and tiresome.

    What did the protest at the Mexico City Olympics accomplish? But wow! Bob Beamon’s jump is a lasting memory.

    • Zeno

      Spoken like a privileged white guy.
      What did the protest at the Mexico City Olympics accomplish?
      We’re still talking about it half a century later.

    • art thiel

      Reeb, you whiffed on any lick of understanding about what happened in Mexico City in 68. It remains a big damn deal.

  • DJ

    Very few could accurately capture this reality, correctly and completely from a neutral position – Thanks Art!

  • John M

    Great stuff, Art, and of course you’ve opened the door for us to act like grownups here. Our region has been international since the first explorers and traders, even more than early San Francisco, so we I think we tend to be more sensitive to cultural shifts, and right now we have a big one. It’s good to have our sports clubs that do great things in the community. As for the madness of Trump, he too will end . . .

    • art thiel

      Thanks John. This area has had plenty of experience with the dark side too — Wobblies, Nazis, Communists, internment camps, etc. Right now, Seattle may be the epicenter of pushback.

  • tor5

    Great insight, Art. Thanks!

    For the most part, I have appreciated most of the political stands taken by athletes of late, because I agree with them and because I believe we are in the midst of a profoundly historical period that demands engagement. But I had to ask myself how I’ve felt about the few athletes who take public stands with which I disagree. And, yes, it’s easy to curse them, but I’m still glad to hear it. To see how their views outside sport come together in the characters and performances we see from some of the most uniquely gifted and gritty individuals on earth is fascinating.

    Here’s to athletes like Michael Bennett who let us see a whole, thinking person. You may disagree, but fans who want athletes to shut up are not whole, thinking fans.

    • art thiel

      Tor, you are rational and reasonable to the point of needing an examination. Indulging the views of people with whom you disagree? I hope your citizenship papers are in order when your doorstep is darkened.

  • Gary

    This insightful journalism is getting out hand!!!
    Well said Art!

    • art thiel

      Thanks.

  • whidbeytom

    For me sports is an escape from the vitriolic political discourse of the day. I’ve enjoyed reading you for years. But, I won’t be back.

    • Pixdawg13

      Your loss. Not Art’s, not mine.

      • Kevin Lynch

        Ditto.

    • art thiel

      I’ll try to get along, Tom. But do keep in mind that sports will be the main fare here. And you’re free to offer your opinions right here and get an answer. Let me know another sports site where writers indulge readers’ views and respond to them.

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  • Robin & Maynard

    Am I the only one to extract the cutest couple from Art’s insightful, articulate, well crafted columns… Margaret Dumont and Michael Bennett.

    • art thiel

      Only R&M can see the deeper truths to divine hidden meanings.

  • rosetta_stoned

    Yawn.

    • tor5

      It’s so telling that you read this as “left-wing politics.” It’s a mere description of what’s happening in the world, and what’s happened in the past. A distillation of facts and quotes. That you find this to be “left-wing” may say a lot more about where the right wing is at these days: outside the bounds of what is factually occurring before our eyes.

      • art thiel

        We are polarized, tor. Too many see through filters of their own making.

      • Kevin Lynch

        Excellent comment.

    • art thiel

      Rosetta, as long as you and others avoid name-calling and shaming of other commenters, you’re welcome to offer a counterpoint here. I’m going to write rarely on the topic, but when I do, I expect to hear from you. I know you can handle the responsibility.

    • Kevin Lynch

      Thanks for thinking of the American majority. NOT.

  • Illuminati Doomsday

    I don’t get it. The country is divided politically. Why would anyone in Entertainment or Sports (closely related) want to piss off half of their potential audience? It is bad business. I don’t remember sports writers getting into political arguments. Look at comics, for years they have talked about politics. Will Rogers, Bob Hope even Jay Leno, you knew where they were politcally but they weren’t overt about it. Now we have Kimmel and Colbert who are flaming liberals and have open disdain for Trump. It turns me off and I turn them off.

    The democrats in the state now want some religious discrimination bill. Huh? The democrats only know one religion: Tax and Spend.
    The liberals are anything but; anyone who does not agree with their entire agenda is a “racist”.

    • Joe_Fan

      Puhleez

    • art thiel

      Has it occurred to you that some people can value things other than money, such as principle? For years, well before — but especially including — Mark Twain, artists, musicians, writers, comedians have all taken risks at irking some in their followings to offer controversial commentary on politics.

      You are free to choose to watch or follow. It’s too bad that conservatives can’t find many witty voices to counter the left’s ability to satirize. Where are you Dennis Miller?

    • Kevin Lynch

      Except that Trump is the ‘flaming despot’ that turns off most of America. Care to look at that?

  • Joe_Fan

    Great article Art.

    • art thiel

      And thanks to you, Joe.

  • juliusvrooder

    Great post Art. The old man would have loved it. He used to cuss your perspective while always admiring your talent. I used to be proud of how he could do that. People don’t do that anymore. But, thankfully, the old man didn’t live to see us get this far out of whack. I have been an athlete, an actor, and a musician (all small-time.) It always struck me that when an athlete, actor, or musician stood up and spoke their piece, everyone who didn’t agree said “shut up and play.” Like, three jobs have no 1st amendment rights, and all other jobs do. Now I get that most of the time, the vitriol comes from the right, against lefty vitriol from the athlete, actor, or musician, but not always. Curt Schilling is an athlete. Tom Selleck is an actor. Ted Nugent is a musician. All have been told “shut up and Play.” I have been a conservative, and a liberal. A child of Reagan who ‘felt the Bern.’ I never said “shut up and drive your forklift,” or “shut up and build your office building,” or “shut up and help your physical therapy patients walk,” or “shut up and flip your burgers.” It is just athletes, actors, and musicians who are rhetorically gagged. Everybody has a 1st amendment right AND RESPONSIBILITY to stand up and speak their piece except athletes, actors, and musicians… Joe The Plumber was an American Hero for fifteen minutes, but Charlton Heston, Bruce Springsteen, and Micheal Bennett need to “shut up and play.” Because Peyton Manning has some pizzas and insurance policies to sell, and we need to get out of the way…

  • juliusvrooder

    And every time I see that picture from Mexico City in 68, I cry. I know, I know.. *wipes away tear, while reaching for guitar* I’ll shut up and play…

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  • Effzee

    “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.” – Richard Bach.

  • TheGreg

    Not a comment on politics but…

    You’re in business right Art? By taking this approach you are hurting your pocket book. For certainly there will be less people willing to read or come to your site if you inject politics into sports reporting? It is one of the contributors into ESPN’s stark decline.

    It is like the baffling decision by CBS to select Stephen Colbert as the late show host. Half the country HATES him. CBS chose to reduce their market by 50% before they even started the show up. Baffling business decision.

    So…you decide to inject politics, you reduce your audience. Again, not a comment on politics.