BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 06/17/2020

Thiel: World is watching ‘sports’ as it never has

A power shift is underway in sports more important than games or seasons. Global protests launched by George Floyd’s murder have helped black athletes’ leverage.

Capitol Hill has become Seattle’s epicenter of BLM protests. / Kyle Kotajarvi via Wikimedia Commons

In a time when no competitions were staged by America’s most popular sports, a whole lot of sports is being watched — through an entirely different prism.

Much of the industry is now inextricably intertwined with the racial politics of a polarized nation under an administration that seeks to keep it that way. The tension is as thick as it is unavoidable.

The two biggest sports, the NFL and the NBA, have rosters heavily populated by African Americans, whose 400 years of grievances have spawned massive protests that finally crossed a threshold to an intense global awareness.

The depth and breadth is mindful of the summer of 1968, when protesters nearly stopped the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Protesters popularized a chant during clashes with police that became a national political catchphrase:

“The whole world is watching.”

Much of the rage in ’68 was fueled by a first in world history — an unpopular war recorded and broadcast by national TV networks. Fifty-two years later, much of the rage is fueled by another world first — the mass collection and distribution of live episodes of police brutality on citizens’ cameras.

Both historic episodes were devastating, fascinating and, because so many saw so much, world-changing.

ESPN telecast a two-hour program Monday night, “The Return of Sports,” in which host Mike Greenberg interviewed separately most major team sports commissioners and several athletes. They talked about the progress — or lack thereof — in returning to play in the face of the tumultuous convergence of the coronavirus shutdown with protests against police tactics and the greater social injustices that sustain systematic racism.

Several times Greenberg asked participants the same question: How do you answer people who tell you to stick to sports? The answers were assertive, but predictable. The question was not.

In August 2018, Jimmy Pitaro was less than five months into his new job as president of ESPN when he told a group interview with outside reporters that his new policy was to minimize or eliminate political commentary among his air talents.

The guardrails went up in a response to criticism that some hosts, such as Jemele Hill, who is black and was suspended for calling President Trump a white supremacist, were becoming too political — and too far left — for the tastes of some viewers. Also fearful were the leagues’ bosses because of backlash from fans contemptuous of Colin Kaepernick and those who supported his kneel-downs during national anthems.

“If you ask me, is there a false narrative out there, I will tell you ESPN being a political organization is false,” Pitaro said. “I will tell you I have been very, very clear with employees here that it is not our jobs to cover politics, purely.”

But Monday, Greenberg’s repeated question signaled Pitaro’s guardrails had been pulled back, yet another shift in influence for the Black Lives Matter movement in the time since the grotesque murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

The ESPN episode may seem subtle, but the Disney colossus that owns ESPN, which dictates many terms and conditions to the sports leagues it pays handsomely, finally understands the location of the right side of history.

Sports are politics. Politics are sports. Race is both. Disengagement is impossible.

It has always been so. Only now is it clear to everyone, however uncomfortable it may feel to some.

The nascent power shift has been visible and remarkable on multiple sports fronts:

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admitting the NFL “was wrong” regarding Kaepernick’s aspirations, acknowledging that black lives matter to the NFL, and that he would encourage teams to sign Kaepernick;

Risking the wrath of its legions, NASCAR banned display of Confederate flags whenever fans are allowed to return to its events;

In a tweet, the Boston Red Sox conceding publicly that former MLB star Torii Hunter, who said he was called the n-word more than 100 times at Fenway Park,  was right to shun any trade to Beantown. It’s a pro sports pathology well-known in Boston at least since the 1960s, when Bill Russell began to lead the Celtics to 11 championships in 13 seasons, but little acknowledged from the inside;

The only black member of Trump’s cabinet, Ben Carson, said regarding the president’s denigrations of players who kneel during the anthem, that people will “work” him and “he’ll get there” and stop the insults. It is unlikely to be true, but that anyone in Trump’s cabinet would even think so out loud suggests an incremental progress heretofore unimaginable;

An NFL head coach, Atlanta’s Dan Quinn, the former Seahawks defensive coordinator, committed to kneeling with his players if they deemed the moment protest-worthy;

The NBA and its players union agreed that player participation in its freshly invented post-season tournament is optional for any reason, including social conscience, and the maximum loss would be 14 games of salary. From the league memo, via The Athletic: “It is critical that every player understand that he has the right to choose not to return to play. Any player who exercises this right will not be disciplined. To respect the decision of those who do return to play, it has been agreed that any player who chooses not to participate will have his compensation reduced by 1/92.6 for each game missed up to a cap of 14 games . . .”

Significant as are all these developments, perhaps the most intriguing boat-rocker came in a tweet Monday from a prominent college athlete, Big 12 Conference offensive player of the year RB Chuba Hubbard of Oklahoma State.

He threatened to withhold his services if things didn’t change after his head coach, Mike Gundy, wore a T-shirt in a Twitter photo bearing the logo of an ultra-conservative, obscure news channel, One America News. It deals in conspiracy theories and has called BLM “a farce.”

After Hubbard’s sentiments were supported by several teammates, a panicked Gundy called a meeting with Hubbard, the nation’s leading rusher last season. Shortly afterward, a video was released on Twitter in which Gundy self-servingly suggested everything was OK and we’ll do better, yet somehow Hubbard ended up apologizing for tweeting his dismay.

Regardless of the lame cover-up, another frontier has been crossed: The desire for college athletes to know what is in a coach’s heart when it comes to the politics of race. The subject no longer is off-limits.

Gundy certainly is entitled to his views, his votes and his TV channels. Hubbard, who skipped the NFL draft to stay for his senior year, is entitled to learn how his coach feels, and act accordingly. After another meeting with the entire team Tuesday, Gundy issued a video apology, complete with a shocked, shocked look when he “learned” what OAN represented.

Gundy, as with fellow high-profile college coaches such as Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, are suddenly playing defense against their current players, not against opponents, the NCAA or the media.

The change was already on at Mississippi State, where our old chum Mike Leach has had five black players enter the NCAA transfer portal since his arrival from Washington State.

Among the first things Leach did in Starkville after eight years in Pullman was to send out what he thought was a humorous tweet involving lynching that many found unfunny. After a big backlash, he apologized.

Tone-deaf coaches like Gundy and Leach will soon discover the power shift resides in their next recruiting classes, which will be filled with black kids newly empowered to ask important questions of every coach in pursuit of them. For the first time in sports history, political sentiment will be a legitimate line of inquiry in a polarized culture.

Whatever “the new normal” turns out to be for sports, success will go to teams, coaches, athletes and sports who understand and endorse the power shift.

Sports are politics. Politics are sports. Race is both. Disengagement is impossible.


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  • Tian Biao

    There must be a middle ground there somewhere. Sports has always been a kind of oasis for a lot of folks who don’t want to hear from these two camps that seem to hate each other so much. yes, the problems exist, and yes the problems are serious, but do we need to hear about them in every forum? can’t we have a hate-free zone? let me put it this way: Espn fired Curt Schilling for his extreme right views. personally, I can’t stand Curt Schilling. But: if we hear from Jemele Hill, then we have to hear from Curt Schilling. It’s only fair. personally, I’d rather not hear politics from either one of them on a sports broadcast.

    • Will Ganschow

      I am asking this of myself at least as much as I am asking you, “What is going on in my own life that I need to escape from.” The world has some very big problems right now that are mostly the result of complicity on the part of nearly everybody. To face these alone(usually) seems overwhelming and daunting however as we’ve seen over the last three weeks when enough people say, “enough,” things start changing pretty quickly. Who was it that asked people of color,”What have you got to lose?” If I’m happier with how things are going in my life and the lives of those around me ( all the way out) maybe I don’t need so much distraction from people sacrificing their long term well being for my entertainment (distraction.)

      • Tian Biao

        interesting, thanks. I’ve always thought of sports as entertainment, similar to movies, television, parades, theater. so is entertainment the same as escape? probably so. but you could also think of sports as common ground. my extended family is as polarized as America is, but sports, like food, is something we can always talk about. we eat, drink, talk sports, spend time together, see each other as human beings, fellow travelers. but suppose Curt Schilling comes on, or Jemele Hill, and starts doing political commentary? it all goes to hell.

        so maybe entertainment is escape. but humans have always done entertainment: Chinese opera, Greek tragedy, dancing, storytelling, circuses, netflix, whatever. you could argue that entertainment / escape is a basic human need. the human experience has always been full of strife, turmoil, disease, war, injustice. the modern era is no different. if sports becomes politics, there is one less arena for entertainment / escape. I’m not complaining, though: just thinking my way through this.

        • Will Ganschow

          Very thoughtful response. Your points are taken, as I feel were mine. I’m going to take a long look at how I use watching sports post pandemic. Have you noticed how much time you have to spend with family without sports on? That said I will also try to remember how some involvement with sports can really help to balance out other areas of relationships.

          • art thiel

            We all “use” sports differently. There’s no right or wrong. I know couple of families whose members can communicate minimally ONLY through sports. When there’s no sports, I fear for them.

        • art thiel

          The one difference with team spectator sports is the emotional investment typically spans months, seasons and years. Most fans consume it deeply, so anything that interferes generates resentment.

          Keep in mind too, that consigning today’s tension to “politics” diminishes its significance. This is life. There’s no fence, wall or moat that keeps life out.

      • art thiel

        Good points, Will. As hard as the times may be, the Floyd murder and subsequent protests appear to be pushing levers toward the big change that so many have sought. That would be an escape.

    • art thiel

      I understand the desire for oasis. It’s part of the attraction. But it’s a want.

      Black people have an intense need for social justice. I think they might ask from you some tolerance while they pursue their needs. They might even ask for your support.

  • mike frost

    Thanks for your article. The gundy story unfortunately is the real tell about politics in sports. Sports in general and the NCAA in particular is a racist enterprise otherwise Gundy would have been immediately fired. Most corporations fire their obviously racist employees once it threatens to undermine their opportunity to make money. Not the NCAA. Not a word spoken, just a tacit nod nod, wink wink that we support racists, and it is inextricably tied to how we make money.

    • Tian Biao

      I’m sorry, but would it really be fair to fire Mike Gundy for wearing a t-shirt that depicts an enterprise that some people do not agree with? once you start firing people for their t-shirts, where do you stop? as for the NCAA: it has very real problems, but it does not employ Mike Gundy.

      • Husky73

        “I’m a man! I’m 40!” (Mike Gundy)

      • James

        Would it really be fair to fire a LBGTQ employee because some people do not agree with them? Supreme Court doesn’t think so, but that won’t stop Republicans.

        • art thiel

          Gundy and lots of us white folks have needed to learn some things for quite awhile now. And because we waited so long, we get to learn them during a pandemci and a depression. Cheers!

          • James

            John Bolton recounts in his forthcoming book that Trump said members of the news media are “scumbags” who should be “executed.” Sports journalists who criticize Dear Leader beware. Cheers!

          • art thiel

            Fortunately, I’m well down the list. Nevertheless, I’m honored.

          • James

            You seem to be at the top of the list of the republican thug who wants you to post your home address.

      • art thiel

        What Gundy did isn’t a fireable offense, it’s just poor judgment that will hurt his program. It betrays his ignorance, which is an especially foolish thing to do right now. Gundy earlier was on the record telling reporters that he likes OAN, so to feign surprise at its racism just compounds the insult.

        • Tian Biao

          yes, exactly. that’s how the system is supposed to work. Gundy does or says something foolish, is confronted and forced to examine his views, will pay a price in recruiting, and credibility with his team, and his future words / actions will be scrutinized more closely. ps I agree with most of the larger points made in your comments and column as well. sportspressnw is a gem.

        • Kirkland

          The puzzling thing is that some regard OAN as a non-partisan, just-the-facts news source (Gundy is on the record for saying as such). I hadn’t heard about OAN until a relative asked me if they were that much-needed neutral news outlet away from the slanted Fox-CNN-MSNBC hegemony. I went to their website, to discover that one of their contributors was Tomi Lahren, who makes Ann Coulter seem like Rachel Maddow. So much for neutrality.

          If all you want is just reporting with no analysis or editorials (and even no comments section), you’re pretty much stuck with the AP or Reuters websites. For TV news channels, no idea.

          • art thiel

            Bloomberg comes closest.

            But there’s another big journalism argument here. If a mainstream platform plays by the conventional rules and balances both sides, it allows a corrupt element that colors outside the lines to push misinformation, disinformation and propaganda that subverts the rule of law.

      • mike frost

        I would have to agree that a t-shirt alone isn’t grounds for firing, but it along with new complaints from past and current players at least require a full investigation from the University.

    • art thiel

      The NCAA reaches its max capacity when it measures fields for 100 yards, and hoops at 10 feet. Beyond that, it’s terra incognita. It took the FBI to arrest men’s basketball for the NCAA to understand that crooks run its show. Social justice issues? Ha.

  • Lodowick

    “Much of the rage in ’68 as fueled by a first”.

    When I read this I thought it said…”much of the rage in ’68 was fueled by a fist”. I just happened to be watching the medal ceremony in the ’68 Olympics when Tommie Smith and John Carlos made their black gloved salutes, “shots heard ’round the world”, to use a sports analogy. It was a spectacular example of picking a time and a place for a statement. I’m thinking of Dr. King writing his most famous speech in The Willard Hotel lobby in D.C. in 1963, then walking down the street to the Lincoln Memorial to deliver it. That was the same hotel in which Julia Ward Howe wrote her Battle Hymn of the Republic in 1863. A time and a place.

    • art thiel

      The ’68 Olympics made a permanent impression on me that sports and politics were intertwined, for better or worse. Same with the boycotts in ’80 and ’84. I was in Beijing in ’08. Lots of human rights tension.

      Fresh circumstances now, but similar attitudes from preservers of the status quo.

      • Kirkland

        There was also the 1976 Olympic boycott by African nations, They wanted the IOC to bar New Zealand from those Games, as their rugby team toured apartheid South Africa the year before, so when New Zealand showed up for the Games, they pulled out.

        • art thiel

          Good pull.

  • Husky73

    I have a completely unrelated question for Art. What’s with the plethora of big breasted women in advertising on the site? I know sex sells, and I agree with Seinfeld’s comments about cleavage, Jayne Mansfield, real and spectacular. But, the ads seems out of context, although the Times sports page has many Viagra ads. Maybe I am over-thinking this?

  • Husky73

    Trump calls on the OAN reporter (???) first in many press conferences.

    • art thiel

      Lots of speculation that it will be his landing place, should he find himself unemployed.

  • tor5

    Again, well said, Art! It’s hard to know where this all ends up, but it’s ironic that these tectonic shifts in our culture wouldn’t be happening without Trump’s relentless drive to divide the country and enflame racial tensions. Sports, and all of us, may end up better off because of how Trump shows us the ugliness of it all. Of course, 1968 gave us Nixon, who promised relief from the chaos and destruction. So there are no guarantees. But this time, it’s hard to see how Trump, Leach, Gundy, OAN and that wing can promise relief from anything.

    • art thiel

      It’s worth keeping in mind that Trump is a symptom, not a cause. His narcissism and incompetence compound the travail, but the divide pre-dates the Civil War and will linger long after 2020.

      • tor5

        It’s a good point and clearly correct. But Trump has been unique in surfacing the ugliest divides in our country like probably no one else in modern times. My optimistic view (when I can muster it) is that this can be a catalyst for positive change. On the other hand, there will be only regression at the national level until his removal. In this way, Trump is the major causal factor–one way or the other–for what happens after 2020.

        • art thiel

          I would contend he is the most aggravating symptom of a broken system that marginalizes so many of its members. But that is a column way bigger than our little enterprise here.

  • ll9956

    Thanks for a great piece, Art.

    “Sports are politics. Politics are sports. Race is both. Disengagement is impossible.

    It has always been so. Only now is it clear to everyone, however uncomfortable it may feel to some.”

    Them’s powerful words. People have feelings and when athletes take the field those feelings are not left in the locker room. Hopefully the high intensity of these times will bring meaningful, substantial change for the better.

    • art thiel

      Thanks. Hard to know the outcome, but going backward is not an option.