‘Stick to Sports’ Impossible — And It Always Has Been

“Stick to sports!”

It’s a common refrain for any athletes – or even sports journalists – who have the temerity to express any political thought. And my God, has that phrase gotten a workout in the past week or so.

Last season, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started taking a knee during the national anthem before games to protest mistreatment of African-Americans by police. Although Kaepernick is out of football this year (I really thought someone would pick him up during training camp, but when people think an unretired Jay Cutler or Scott Tolzein are better options at quarterback, well, it makes theories of blackballing look more plausible), others have taken up the movement. Several Browns players did it before a preseason game, and this weekend, Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell did it before a baseball game.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump – himself a failed sports owner, having tried to buy the Indians and the Buffalo Bills, and having driven an entire league (the USFL) into oblivion – inserted himself into the argument by suggesting that anyone who knelt is a son of a bitch that should be fired.

So now, everyone has their own opinion – or at least, they’re willing to share it now. I’m not saying that they’re all valid, but why should someone’s opinion be less valid just because they’re a professional athlete? They vote and pay taxes, just like us. And some of them even go into politics after their playing careers. Jim Bunning was the only U.S. Senator to throw no-hitters in both leagues. Bill Bradley went from the Knicks to the U.S. Senate (and picked up the coveted Phil Jackson endorsement when he ran for president in 2000). Gerald Ford was a three-year letterman at the University of Michigan and turned down offers for the then-nascent NFL. Just yesterday, after U.S. Sen. Bob Corker announced his retirement, Peyton Manning’s name was thrown around as a potential replacement.

But the intersection between sports and politics doesn’t end there. In fact, politics and sports don’t intersect, they’re congruent. The fact is that sports are big business, and one of the duties of government, as spelled out in the U.S. Constitution, is to regulate commerce among nations, within the states, and with Indian tribes. The fact is, Major League Baseball has been allowed to thrive because it has an antitrust exemption granted by the U.S. Supreme Court. The NFL thrives because Congress allowed the merger between it and the AFL. A federal arbitrator, Peter Seitz, opened the door for free agency in Major League Baseball and ultimately in other sports as well.

This isn’t a recent development either. Secretary of War Newton Baker (a Cleveland native who owned stock in the Indians at one point) ordered everyone to work or fight, shortening the baseball season in 1918. A generation later, Franklin Roosevelt determined baseball was vital to national morale and should continue during World War II.

And sports is where social change is born. The NFL (and the All-America Conference, the original home of the Browns) integrated in 1946, a year before Major League Baseball – and two years before the armed forces – in a time when “separate but equal” remained the law of the land. The expansion of baseball showed the population shift in America throughout the 20th century. And in a day and age where stadiums are publicly funded (and I’m not saying that’s right; I’m saying that’s the way it is), there are always political considerations in sports.

So regardless of where you come down on the issues that rose to the forefront of American society this weekend, there is no sticking to sports. Nor should there be.

Photo: Associated Press

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