What seems like occurred as an overnight seismic change, the worlds of sports and politics are more intertwined today than any point in time over the last several decades. Colin Kaepernick, who was a Super Bowl caliber quarterback as recently as several years ago, has ignited national debate over sports, race, politics, patriotism and justice after making one simple choice: to kneel. Since that decision was made, there has been no shortage of opinions by politicians, pundits, players, coaches, and fans on how the protests deserve to be treated.
What seems to be the most prevalent response by regular NFL viewers and casually involved citizens alike, in fact, is far more interesting than the tweet of the president or the cries of boycott from an impulsive fan base. The vast majority of people firmly believe that the players have the “right” to protest. Although this number at base value is somewhat meaningless, because the constitutional right to protest should not be and is not contingent on fickle public opinion, the numbers do prove that the protests are not perceived as being so egregious that they go beyond first amendment protections. About 2/3 of Americans believe players should not be punished or fired for the protests while, at the same time, roughly 2/3 of Americans disagree with the players chosen method of protest.
Additionally, those who care about this issue, on either side, should be weary of current public opinion and instead pay close attention to historical trends. In 1966, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, 66 percent of Americans gave Martin Luther King a negative rating, according to a Gallup poll. Also, a majority of Americans disapproved of the Montgomery Bus System Boycott, the Freedom Riders, lunch counter sit-ins, and the Selma Marches. Public opinion has always been fluid, especially when it comes to civilian protests against racial injustice. The standards and morals of society change quickly, much like they have in respect to gay marriage over the past decade. I do not believe that it would be an absurd assumption to think that, eventually, the anthem protests will be viewed far differently in the future compared to how they are today.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is how the narrative of how politics and sports have become inextricably linked. What most people seem to forget, however, is that politics and sports have always been intertwined by issues such as race, gender, ideology, religion, and nationality. Iconic boxer Muhammad Ali’s entire career was surrounded by political controversy, due to his conversion to Islam and refusal to participate in the Vietnam War. The world of sports changed forever when tennis legend Billy Jean King defeated fellow player and proud chauvinist, Bobby Riggs. That event, which was crudely labeled “The Battle of the Sexes,” was viewed by over 90 million worldwide and still holds the record for highest attendance at an American tennis match. Jackie Robinson, when he first entered professional baseball, did not have the luxury of being “apolitical” when he was constantly taunted with racial epithets by fans and players alike. Sports have always been at the center of political controversy, so the idea that players must be neutral in all political matters is not just wrongheaded and utterly disingenuous, it is patently and historically untrue. Also, although many may disagree, singing the national anthem before sporting events is itself a political act and statement. What is more American than using that short window of time than to stand up for, or kneel down for, what you believe should be done to better the nation?
I will end this post with a transition into the below video, which features sport’s pundit and personality Nick Wright and his opinions on what has quickly turned into yet another chapter in our nation’s long, grueling, and divisive history over the politics of sports and race.