Sports Have Always Been Political

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Sports Have Always Been Political

I’m not talking about professional sports.

Just sports in general.

I grew up playing sports year-round. My first love was basketball—but once my sub-5-foot frame became humbled, I fell in love with baseball. I still played basketball in the winter, but my springs, summers and some falls were filled with the smell of fresh cut grass and the crunch of the infield. I also played football, soccer, lacrosse, golf, tennis and roller hockey in between those two tentpoles of my adolescence. I had a blast, even if my knees and ankles pay me back for the damage I did to them every single day.

I miss that time in my life, and it’s as much about the camaraderie with my teammates as the fun of the games themselves. My story is not original, and it is not confined to sports. I know tons of people who also had my schedule—but with the arts—and they express a similar sympathy towards them (but I don’t need to write a column trying to convince people that the arts are political. In fact, here it is: fucking duh).

As Americans have retreated from politics over the last half-century, the popularity of sports has risen tenfold. I believe that there is some correlation between these two facts. Politics is just the name that we give to the activity of figuring out how we’re all going to co-exist in this complex world, and the games in sports are a metaphor for that—but it’s the time around those games where politics becomes inescapable—because that’s where you really meet the people that you’ve already made sacrifices for on the field.

Roughly 36 million kids play organized sports every year. 52% of all girls play sports and 66% of all boys. Not all are going to have enlightening experiences, because the fact of life is that assholes are unavoidable, but the vast majority of kids are being taught valuable lessons and social skills that will help carry them through life. Sports is one key area where we are able to hone the skills that make us human, and in our ever-compartmentalized society, they are one of the few truly common areas remaining amongst Americans.

Baseball taught me that even if the pitcher gets all the publicity, it takes far more than one person to reach our goal. My time swinging a bat forced me to accept that failure is inevitable if I am to succeed. I didn’t just realize all this on my own. My coaches and teammates helped me get there, and I met a lot of different stripes of humanity in the process. Growing up, nothing expanded my worldview better than sports.

When we “talk politics” in the hyper-partisan political realm, what we mostly do is retreat to tribal signifiers like we’re a bunch of fucking peacocks squawking at each other. In sports, the ramifications of political decisions manifest themselves in your teammates, making politics inescapable at times. I grew up as an upper middle-class kid, and my world was completely shattered when I met a kid named Marcus playing baseball one summer.

I manned second base all night, and at that point in my career, the only reason that I was on the field was because of my glove. Unless you threw a fastball right over the plate, I probably wasn’t hitting the ball out of the infield, so my starting spot was tenuous as is. I had a terrible night in the field, committing back to back errors in the bottom of the 7th (functionally the bottom of the 9th, as we only played seven innings at this level), and one of those runs scored to tie the game. My other mistake didn’t score because Marcus—our shortstop—made a great diving catch, then stepped on second to complete the double play to end the inning.

I redeemed myself at the plate the next time up—as I laced a double into left field as part of a big inning that put the game out of reach. On the bus ride back, Marcus and I broke the awkward unknown teammate barrier and connected over our shared love for Allen Iverson, and subsequently bonded with the rest of the team over stupid adolescent boy things. None of this happens without his great catch in the field. I’ve been on the other side of those plays—where there is no Marcus there to save the game, and I rode alone in the back of the bus in silence.

Stepping off the bus, my young brain nearly caved in when Marcus told me that he probably wouldn’t have any dinner when I asked what he was eating for dinner—because his parents didn’t have any money for groceries. Making matters all the more stark, he said this as I walked towards my mom’s car while he turned towards the bus stop. My mom took us both out to dinner, dropped him off and then spent the car ride home telling me stories from when she grew up in poverty. All it took was one game for my young self to come face to face with an economic crisis that my adult self has spent much of his time writing about.

My ordeal with Marcus—and the other Marcuses that I’ve met in my 20+ years of organized sports—prove that the intersection of politics and sports is inescapable if we are to treat each other as humans, instead of avatars that our favorite hot takers can scream at. Go ahead and get on your soap box (on Fox Business) and say that Marcus’s parents were lazy all you want, but do you really believe that children should starve because of their parents’ errors? If so, that’s pretty fucked up. Talk to someone about it.

So don’t tell me that these NFL players are politicizing the game when they were told by the NFL in 2009 to begin standing, and every week, they go to battle with a metaphorical army filled with atheists, catholics, evangelical Christians, African Americans, Asian Americans, white men, homosexuals, asexuals, etc…—all of them coming from every single socioeconomic bracket. In sports, we’re made to care about one another not because of anything we share personally, but because we are all fighting towards one common goal. Isn’t that what politics is about?

Adults bastardize sports by turning bars and NFL parking lots and stadiums into drunken gauntlets, but the only reason that they care in the first place is because they did as a kid. Cut me open and I swear I bleed Bronco orange because I grew up in Denver. I planned an entire vacation this week in order to watch my beloved Colorado Rockies finish a surprise season in which they hold a small lead for the last playoff spot going into the final weekend of the season. Sports are just an acceptable outlet that we can funnel our tribalism through, and thanks to the fact that sports—not movies or any other group social activity—injected our nationalism into it through the national anthem, the core message of what we’re doing here is getting lost.

You’re reading my writing thanks to sports. My best friend from high school is a Duke die-hard, and so is our politics editor Shane Ryan. They connected on Twitter through the Church of Coach K, and I subsequently connected to Shane through college football, and the rest is history. Sports legislate a large portion of our lives because we devote a large portion of our lives to following it.

What happened in the NFL this past weekend was inevitable. There were far too many political currents pointed in the direction of Kaepernick’s anthem protest. All it took was the right event—and a Trump phrase which seemed to be a stand-in for the n-word hit the waves, he took a shot at Saint Steph Curry on Twitter, and we were off.

We also saw some Democrats who still clearly haven’t learned the lessons of 2016 chomping at the bit to use this protest as a weapon against Trump.

Hey dummies, Kaepernick started kneeling last year and he isn’t able to kneel on an NFL sideline right now because the NFL is filled to the brim with hypocrites. Jerry Jones is not your hero and kneeling during the anthem is not about Trump. If the Democrats try to make this ongoing protest about our nacho cheese flavored POTUS, then they’re completely hopeless and we may as well anoint Trump Supreme Leader.

This specific weekend’s protest was about responding to Trump’s overt bigotry (plus the NFL cynically coopted the movement as an intentionally amorphous cause of “unity”—all in the name of branding), but the act of kneeling during the anthem is a protest against injustice and racial inequality. It’s not about protesting the anthem (cc: cable news chyron writers)—Rosa Parks wasn’t protesting buses. Saying that kneeling is about the flag or the anthem is intentionally misleading, and our news networks should be ashamed for initially framing it that way. You can’t look at America and think that African Americans receive anywhere near equal treatment as white people. To deny that unassailable fact is to define white privilege.

Spurs coach, and my 2020 dream presidential candidate—Gregg Popovich—put it best at NBA media day on Monday.

We have a perverse system in this country where we put our kids through a life-affirming experience with people of all stripes, and then drag them away from it the further we get from adolescence. It proves the power of our tribalism—especially the allure of the ever-shifting definition of whiteness. When we’re forced to address the humanity in our political opponents, tribal signaling and symbolism tend to recede into the background while reality takes root. It’s easy to go on Fox News and say that black people are making up the entire police brutality issue, but it’s a lot harder for a left guard to say it to the face of the left tackle that he’s been going to war with for sixty minutes. Politics is inescapable in sports because politics is inescapable in life, and sports are one of the few portions of 21st century American life where we let our guards down just enough for politics to sink in.

Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.

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