Why Politics And Sports Aren’t Separate

In the summer of 2014, I packed into an Oakland federal courtroom every day, along with a raft of other legal-affairs and sports reporters, to cover the trial in O’Bannon v. NCAA. Former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon sued the NCAA on behalf of his fellow college athletes, claiming that the NCAA’s refusal to pay players was an antitrust violation. And, in large part, the athletes won.

In the course of the trial, the judge and the audience learned a great deal about how the college-athletics sausage is made. Skilled players — usually Latino and black kids — are recruited at the high-school level. Colleges spend vast sums of money to nab the best players, because having a stellar sports team is very lucrative, especially the money that comes from bigger events like March Madness and football championships. The athletes, often from lower-income backgrounds, are offered scholarships in exchange for the opportunity to attend college and continue to play sports. They are put up in luxurious living quarters with game rooms and theaters, and they practice in state-of-the-art fitness centers with fancy hot tubs.

Cushy, right? But college athletes routinely are routed into bogus paths of study, easy classes with little education and no homework so they’ll have plenty of time to train. They often train harder than their bodies can handle, and sustain injuries in workouts or on the field. They’re promised a shot at playing professional sports, with all the acclaim, celebrity and money that can come with it, but very few make it that far. Many more leave college with chronic injuries and a degree that won’t help them find work. Meanwhile, university coaches and athletic directors make excellent money off the backs of these young people of color.

John Oliver did an excellent episode of Last Week Tonight on all this. Check it out:

I’ve been thinking about those athletes a lot lately while watching the national conversation around football players who take a knee during the “Star-Spangled Banner.” These are the guys who survived the college athletics gauntlet (according to the NCAA, 251 of the 253 football players drafted in 2016 came from them). Sure, they’re well-paid, and some of them get to be famous and live comfortable lives they might not have otherwise had. But they’re also subject to repeated brain injury, which can lead to a variety of terrible outcomes, including attention problems, dizziness, headaches, memory loss, impulsive behavior, dementia, speech impediments, vertigo, deafness, depression and suicidality. And for what? So they can make a couple million dollars a year entertaining sports fans? What is this, the Roman gladiator games?

The recent protests started last year with NFL player Colin Kaepernick, who said:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” referencing a series of events that led to the Black Lives Matter movement and adding that he would continue to protest until he feels like “[the American flag] represents what it’s supposed to represent.”

Kaepernick grew up in suburban Turlock, California, where black folks make up less than 2 percent of the population. He didn’t get through that childhood without intimate knowledge of how black kids are treated differently — by white neighbors, by teachers, by police. He knew that the police forces of today are directly connected to the slave patrols of earlier centuries. And, as Samantha Bee remarks in the clip below, it’s not like financial success gives black folks a “get out of racism free” card. On top of that, the national anthem — not to mention the foundation of the U.S. we know today — is exceedingly racist. It’s a wonder more athletes aren’t protesting.

Folks like Newt Gringrich and Michael Grimm have complained about the number of athletes now protesting, saying they don’t want politics mixed up in their enjoyment of sports. The only way you can say that is if you’re totally unaware or blissfully ignorant of the foundations of sports in the first place. The fact that most of the college and professional athletes are black — not to mention the experiences they’ve had growing up as people of color, going through college sports and becoming pro athletes — means that sports and politics are about as inseparable as a tree and its roots.

Much has been made, rightly, about the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any acceptable way for black people to protest, whether it’s Black Lives Matter blocking a freeway or pro athletes kneeling during the “Star-Spangled Banner.” But I’ve seen it pointed out that the objection is less about where they protest, but the fact that they’re protesting at all. Raising awareness about systematic racism and police brutality is uncomfortable. It makes white people uncomfortable, especially — in part because it’s something that many of white folks otherwise don’t have to think about. The current situation is violent, ugly and unfair — and it isn’t changing quickly. Black folks and people of color are tired of it, and they’re tired of it being ignored. So they’re making sure it doesn’t get ignored.

President Donald Trump spoke out about the protests a week ago during a stop in Alabama, saying that sports players who protest during the national anthem should be fired. It was just days after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, destroying the homes and threatening the lives of 3.4 million Americans. People there are running out of fuel, food and clean water, and may be without electricity for months. Many are flashing back to Hurricane Katrina, which disproportionately hurt black folks in Louisiana, and it’s probably no coincidence that Trump hasn’t made an island of more than 3 million brown folks more of a priority. After all, he’s been busy deporting undocumented immigrants, fomenting wars in Asia and complaining about how black athletes protest. He’s started to change his tune, maybe because it has dawned on him that his name could go down in history in association with a massive humanitarian disaster if he doesn’t.

For many years of my journalism career, I attended city council meetings at least a couple of times a month. Many such meetings open with a standing recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. At some point, I stopped putting my hand over my heart or saying the words, and eventually I stopped standing for the pledge at all. Why? Because we are not one nation under God; we are fractured by major divisions over faith, particularly Judaism and Islam. We are not indivisible, and we do not have liberty and justice for all. If we did, Puerto Rico would have received attention and aid sooner. If we did, black people wouldn’t be shot and killed by police for no reason. If we did, the American carceral system wouldn’t be a modernized form of slavery. If we did, racism and slavery wouldn’t exist. If we did, football players would be able to protest without so much backlash. If we did, they wouldn’t have to protest in the first place.

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