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When Sports and Politics Meet

We address a question about the current wave of sports protests and the greater intersection between sports and politics.

NBA: Preseason-Utah Jazz at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag tackles a pretty tough topic. If you have Portland Trail Blazers questions, send them to blazersub@gmail.com and we’ll try to get to them!

Dear Dave,

I’m curious why you haven’t commented on the team’s protests or even the greater issue of protests that are sweeping the sports nation right now. It seems important and your site usually offers greatly-valued perspective on these things.

Carl

You’re right. We haven’t and I haven’t. I’ve been watching and reading trying to learn more, but I haven’t felt qualified to speak myself. So many others have spoken eloquently, in words and actions. These matters hit far closer to home for them than they do for me...not that I’m divorced or unconcerned, just inexpert. To pass judgment on Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Colin Kaepernick from my place of relative ignorance on such a personal, complex matter would be hubris.

Some will respond, “You do that every day when you speak about basketball. They know far more than you and yet you speak!” This is true, but the subjects are not equal. The fame and high salaries that permeate professional sports come with the attendant expectation that people will talk about you. The minute that stops, both fame and salary disappear. Athletes not only expect to be discussed critically, in some ways they need to be. But there’s a limit. Personal, political reactions to sweeping societal issues that affect them and their families fall beyond that limit, at least for me. It’s my job to critique jump shots and coaching plans, even if I’m inexpert, and to invite you to do the same. That mandate doesn’t extend to situations beyond basketball that we haven’t experienced or don’t understand.

My (even our) approval or disapproval doesn’t trump a player’s right to express their political views as a member of this society and (in most cases) a citizen of this country. No amount of money or fancy uniforms outweighs that right. Players have a responsibility to the franchise not to go beyond reasonable bounds of protest while in uniform. Players also have a responsibility to the public to make sure their stated views don’t categorically invalidate others. (Thus we’ve seen justifiable backlash against comments that degrade based on race, gender, or orientation, some of which we’ve participated in here.) Within those broad guidelines, athletes get to be human just like the rest of us. They don’t have to please us. They’re not required to agree with any of their fans. They’re allowed to engage in and provoke public discussion just like any other public figure. Viewers have the right to express themselves too, up to and including turning the channel or refusing to follow the team. They do not have the right to demand silence.

Moving beyond this particular series of protests to a more general topic, I think it’s fair to say that athletes cannot win when it comes to politics and sports. Michael Jordan was roundly criticized for remaining apolitical throughout his career. Today’s athletes are being criticized for expressing themselves. No stance will make everyone happy. It’s up to each athlete to follow their conscience. Personally that’s all I expect or want them to do. I hold the same expectation of bankers, folks in the service, and the guy who picks up my trash. I’m not going to agree with them all, but I’ll listen.

Living in such a highly-charged political climate hasn’t helped us process these things. When I started writing about sports, you could say just about anything you wanted. Pundits shot from the hip. Fans expressed unbridled (and in many cases, unjustified) passion. People lined up behind their team and considered the other guys mortal enemies. Any time your side won it was, by definition, both right and good. The world of politics was also contentious but expectations of truth, rationality, dignity, and some claim to the welfare of all still underpinned the process. Sports were games; politics were serious.

In 2016 the positions have inverted. Sportswriters are routinely called to account using established metrics and measures. Rooting for a particular team will never go out of style but ignoring facts to do so is considered gauche. Both fans and players are much more apt to understand the sport itself, seeing the bigger picture. Portland fans still want the Blazers to beat Milwaukee but they’ll also have empathy for, in many cases appreciation of, the Bucks and their fans.

Meanwhile the world of politics has become the Wild West. People play fast and loose with facts. The media covers elections like sporting events, talking about wins and losses, paths to victory, and the mechanisms of success more than the substance of the people engaging in the process. The masses gather behind teams and depict the other side as anathema. Passion and highlight reels carry the day. If my team wins, all is good. If the other guys win, the world will end.

As someone who has done this sports-writing thing for a minute, I can tell you that even the sanest, most rational sports talk is pretty far removed from reality. It works and it’s fun because we all participate in an imaginary world of our choosing where rebounds, heroic feats, and tragic falls take on great meaning. At its best the sports world can be illustrative, unifying, and transformational. It also has a dark side...weaknesses and limitations that remind us that we take it too seriously at our peril. When we lose the sense of mutually-agreeable pretending, the scene gets ugly. (Think Dodgers vs. Giants fans or the infamous incident between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers a decade ago.)

It scares the bejeezus out of me to see the political process begin to emulate sports absent the sense of pretend (and its limits). I’m uncomfortable knowing that I’m more likely to be called to account by a reader with True Shooting Percentage tables than the leaders of our society are to be called to account by any measurable standard. It bothers me that NBA fans have developed a greater appreciation for the overall game while our political groups split farther apart, abandoning any sense of the whole in favor of ideological balkanization. Sometimes it feels like the whole world is going backwards and what used to be Froot Loop Land is now one of the few bastions of sanity left.

In the face of all that, I think maybe a pre-game huddle might be OK. Or at least I’m not as worked up about it as I am about other things. However you feel about it, we probably need more understanding, not less. Whatever the provocation, message, or outcome, I’m willing to overlook a lot to see people with their arms around each other right now.

Keep those Trail Blazers questions coming to blazersub@gmail.com!

—Dave (blazersub@gmail.com, @Blazersedge, @DaveDeckard)