We all have our passions and things that we love. Those things aren’t always similar and it’s interesting when those things intersect and how they do. For me, my two biggest passions in life are politics and sports, which I know is the case for many others too. Both have played a big part in my life and had a major effect on me.
It’s interesting to see how the relationship between sports and politics has evolved and changed over the years, especially in these days when we are searching for comparisons. With everything that’s happened this year and the past few weeks, the comparison has been 1968. When it comes to the intersection of sports & politics, that’s noteworthy because you can point to that same period of time as the zenith of athletes being politically active. You can point to the activism of the likes of Muhammed Ali, Jim Brown, John Carlos & Tommy Smith. In 1967 we saw the Cleveland Summit, where we saw some of the biggest athletic figures of the day come together to support Ali in his legal fights against draft dodging.
That was an age when athletes and political activism where very hand joined at the hip & many athletes used their platforms to push for social change. But after that time we saw a move over time away from that point, a move that really matched society. As we saw pro sport become a bigger industry, with bigger incomes & many corporate sponsorships, we saw an increasing reticence for athletes to speak out, to the point where the silence became common wisdom. The prime example is the quote from Michael Jordan, when he was asked why in 1990 he refused to endorse Democrat Harvey Gantt, an African American who was running against longtime incumbent Republican Jesse Helms, who was notorious for his racism. To that he was quoted saying “Republicans buy sneakers, too”, something that he admits now was said in jest but was selfish on his part.
But that line stuck, and served as a reminder to many that taking stands and political activism can come at a big cost. For a couple generations of athletes, it convinced many to take a much quieter approach & not stand out. That started to change over the past few years with a few notable situations, probably most notably being the protests of Colin Kaepernick, which as cost him his playing career. And while athletes themselves have spoken out, many leagues have remained quiet, with a few exceptions like the NBA. But like many other things, this moment has seemed to change a lot when it comes to sports and activism and two big developments happened yesterday really spoke to that. Both were striking in of themselves & spoke volumes. First let’s start with a story that really harkens back to the 60’s:
The news of the creation of “More Than a Vote” by folks in the basketball community like LeBron James, Jalen Rose, Trae Young and Skylar Diggins-Smith is the kind of step that many athletes wouldn’t have taken in my youth. It’s taking their platform that they have built through sports and using it to bring about social change, to address issues and make a better society. James has been politically vocal before, especially around police violence, but this is different as it’s taking the next step. It’s not just speaking out but taking action to change things. This is more in the spirit of what we saw in the 60’s, which is refreshing to see.
What’s also interesting about this move is that it’s one where we’re seeing James take the playbook that has been used by so many big money influencers on the right to advance their own bottom lines, but using it for social good. James has earned enough money through playing, endorsements, and all that he doesn’t need to worry about “Republicans not buying his Nikes”. And now he’s using the laws out there to make change. James, along with his longtime close friend & business partner Maverick Carter, is putting up the initial funding to get this organization going, something that American political financing law allows & has been used against many social movements. This all comes in time to help get it rolling in the run up to the important Fall Presidential elections, and we will see how successful it is. While that story is big, the other story that came out yesterday was one that really surprised many:
The fact that these two stories both broke in the same day, near the same time, was quite the sight. On one hand you had athletes speaking out & acting to make their country a better place. On the other, you saw one of the biggest sports properties in the United States formally banning one of the most notorious symbols of the history & racism out there. It cannot be understated the importance of NASCAR of all organizations banning the Confederate Flag, especially given what NASCAR is. NASCAR is a staple of sports in the American south and if there is any sports organization out there that would be most likely to adhere to that old Jordan maxim, they would be it.
Whether if they like it or not, NASCAR as a sport has been as tied to that flag as it has been to Winston cigarettes and Busch beer. And in this age when you have an American President who’s made a point of attacking those who dare to call for symbols of the Confederacy to the removed, there are real potential consequences for them taking this step. In the past, those consequences would have been enough to keep them quiet and stop them from acting. Yet this time, in this moment, enough was clearly enough and they acted, amazingly on the same day that Trump was defending keeping the names of Confederate generals on US military facilities. That’s a contrast that’s hard to ignore.
As for the fall out so far, beyond the surprise of so many that it happened, it has been minimal. So far only one driver has spoken out against this move. Ray Ciccarelli a 50-year-old racer in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, has said this was too much for him and he’s packing it in. In a Facebook post he said that “if this is the direction NASCAR is headed we will not participate after 2020 season is over.” So for the record, at this point all this move has cost NASCAR is a 50-year-old driver you never heard of before this moment because out of 18 career races on the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, he has only placed in the top 10 once. If that’s not the definition of “a footnote in history”, I don’t know what else is.
Now those examples aren’t alone and I’m sure that more will come from this moment. A couple of days ago before this we saw a group of current & former hockey players form the “Hockey Diversity Alliance” with the mission to “rid the game of racism and intolerance and be a positive force not only in sport, but in society as a whole.” We also saw the NFL come out in support of “Black Lives Matters” and apologize for how they acted in the Kaepernick case (although he still remains unemployed, which was rightfully noted). But I couldn’t help but notice the juxtaposition of those two stories, both happening on the same day and what it means for the greater political discourse. After decades of having athletes shying away from using their platform to advocate for political change, we’re seeing a big swing back in the other direction in response to this moment. It’s striking and I can’t help but think that it’s a very good thing for society as a whole. It was just a couple of years ago that athletes like James were being told to “Shut up and dribble”. In response to that we saw athletes start to say “Hell no” and now in this moment, we’re seeing athletes really find their feet and their voices again in the proud tradition of Ali, Brown, Abdul Jabbar, and others. It speaks to the finest traditions of both sports & politics and I hope that this is the start of a new generation of athletes who see it as their place to be fully involved in the public square, on & off the court.