It’s an election year in the United States -- as you already know thanks to the divisive coverage at every level of media and probably your own very personal stake in the matter of who will become the next president. Sports have often have a strange relationship with politics, since an interest in sports can bring people together across lines of ideology in a very unique and peculiar way. Whether because of an interest in the game itself or an allegiance to a particular team, stadiums, arenas, and bleachers are always filled with fans whose backgrounds, voter registrations, religions, morals, and social policies are vastly different, even when they cheer for the same athletes.
So obviously, the business of athletes being individual human beings with political thoughts of their own is bound to get lost somewhere in translation. Athletic abilities and being a good teammate aren’t things even remotely related to political affiliation. But the current drama of American politics isn’t excluding professional athletes from the line of fire — in fact, many have put themselves directly in it, and the blow-back has been harsher than it would be in any other entertainment industry because of the fact that interest in sport, in and of itself, is relatively apolitical.
Sports are unlike films, visual art and music, which often wear their sociopolitical context on their sleeves — and we, as viewers, accept that. Sports are another story. Sports culture is where things can get very tricky.
Many sports fans vehemently resist politics entering into their conversations on sports, which to a degree seems fair — having something in our culture that provides an element of unity and leisure is worth having. Yet there seems to be some kind of misconception that because athletes are such public figures, often styled as heroes and role models, that their opinions are less welcome or even insulting to their fan base, and this is simply not the case.
Their level of responsibility to the greater public begins and ends with doing their jobs and being a good citizen — and in a democratic society, there is no way that expressing an opinion can be categorized as bad citizenry, even when that opinion is unpopular — as long as it isn’t downright violent or hateful.
Take for example the controversial action by Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas, who refused to visit the White House with his team and the Stanley Cup following a dramatic championship performance of a lifetime. Thomas is a Republican. At the time, he stated on his Facebook page that he was exercising his right as an individual to decline the invitation due to fundamental disagreements with the federal government. While the act was perceived as disrespectful to President Obama and caused some apparent tension between Thomas and the Bruins organization, he was well within his rights as a private citizen to refuse to go.
Thinking of Thomas as a Boston Bruin player first and foremost, it isn’t going to be a popular move. But very few people are singularly beholden to their jobs–and indeed, Thomas announced a hiatus from hockey shortly after the incident, with the intention of focusing on his family and personal life. We like to romanticize the teammate relationship as fans, but being a pro athlete is both a job and a business, and it obviously doesn’t satisfy every human need.
This sentiment was echoed by Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who has been a vocal supporter of gay marriage and gay rights. His team’s owner, Steve Bisciotti, was contacted late last month by Maryland politician Emmett C. Burns requesting that Bisciotti force his employee to “cease and desist”, referring to Ayanbadejo’s public support for gay marriage as “injurious actions.”
Ayanbadejo tweeted on September 4th: “Football is just my job it’s not who I am. I am an American before anything. And just like every American I have the right to speak!!!”
Team owners have power over players’ salaries and behavior while performing their jobs — the same as if he or she worked at Starbucks or in an office — but not when they’re off the clock. But Burns seemed to think that possible fan disagreement and the entertaining nature of the NFL precluded Ayanbadejo from making such a statement. Burns’ letter drew a rather colorful and strongly worded counter-letter by Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, which specifically cites Burns’ request to Bisciotti as being in violation of the First Amendment among other more metaphorical accusations (read: the language is quite NSFW).
Maintaining the professional sports industry as something that can be enjoyed by everyone is important if we want our favorite teams to continue to bring people together on a plane separate from politics. It’s one of many ways that we can engage each other in America and come to understand each other as people rather than election results and Gallup polls.
However, this also involves recognizing the athletes we root for as private citizens themselves with rights to their opinions, no matter what those might be. Acting like it’s some violation of their contracts to have public opinions is tantamount to objectification. Let them do it. If you have a problem with it, it might be you who is politicizing the sport.
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