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On “sticking to sports”

The pernicious implications of a phrase we’ve grown all too accustomed to hearing

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals
Protestors display a sign at a Sept. 29, 2017 St. Louis Cardinals game at Busch Stadium.
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

To be completely honest, I don’t exactly know how to begin this article. I would venture to guess that most, if not all, of you clicked on this piece already holding concrete beliefs regarding the interaction between sports and sociopolitical issues.

This isn’t my first VEB post that doesn’t focus on Player X’s statistics or the Cardinals’ upcoming series against Team Y–and I doubt this will be my last. Whether you share my personal ideological leanings or not, I hope we can agree that sports and the “outside world” have an interwoven relationship. The fact we have debated whether or not athletes should “stick to sports” from Muhammad Ali’s objections to the Vietnam War to Colin Kaepernick’s protests against racial injustice is in and of itself evidence of this.

For as much as some fans might tune in desiring escapism, it would be foolish to pretend that sports are–or ever could be–truly insulated from the rest of society. That’s because players and coaches aren’t fictional characters. They are real people, and anything involving real people will inevitably reflect real life. NFL players, for example, shouldn’t be asked to avoid discussing drug laws and the opioid crisis when they too suffer from the overprescription of painkillers. NCAA athletes shouldn’t be asked to avoid discussing income inequality and an economy that enables the boss to pocket wealth through worker exploitation.

And nobody should be asked to avoid discussing how people of different skin colors are subjected to different treatment. Athletes are not immune to discrimination, or many other problems confronting our society.

Baseball in particular is reluctant to acknowledge this. While the NBA is empowering its members to advocate for change and facilitate crucial conversations about racism, MLB hasn’t even bothered with a generic press release following the murder of George Floyd. In Minnesota, the Timberwolves, Vikings, and Wild made a point of celebrating players who are using their platform to better their community; the Twins merely offered up a hollow PR statement. And before you comment something to effect of “looting isn’t helping any of these communities,” consider: 1) no prominent sports figures are encouraging looting, 2) media fixation on looters is an inaccurate portrayal of the vast majority of protestors, 3) the aforementioned fixation underscores a problematic focus on materialistic aims over black bodies while insidiously shifting the blame onto groups such as Black Lives Matter as if they are somehow the cause of systemic racism.

Sports are a significant aspect of American culture. Consequently, athletes–whether you like it or not–possess a great amount of influence and ability to create change. Telling them to “stick to sports” is essentially telling them to ignore this responsibility.

Finally, I want to note that an apolitical sports world is impossible–and pushing for one is detrimental–for another reason. Non-action couched as neutrality is still an action with ramifications. In other words, even sticking to sports and ostensibly doing nothing has an effect when compared to the alternative of doing something. When the subject at hand is one of life or death like police brutality, that effect becomes all the more important.

We face issues too deeply ingrained within our society to lie to ourselves and claim they can and should be separable from sports. Put simply, it’s not as simple as sticking to sports.