CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Being a professional athlete doesn’t mean you forfeit your right to express yourself in the same manner as your fellow Americans. This is a misconception circulated by some people that needs a civics lesson.
They want athletes to remain in the little box of existence they’ve constructed for them, a box where the athletes are two-dimensional figures — like cardboard cutouts at the supermarket — put on the planet to entertain, not actual people with thoughts, opinions, feelings, and experiences.
The stick-to-sports harangue when an athlete expresses his or her opinion on a social or political matter is tiresome and hackneyed. It came up again earlier this month when Fox News personality Laura Ingraham chastised LeBron James and Kevin Durant for unfavorable comments they made about President Donald Trump during a video podcast the NBA superstars did with Cari Champion of ESPN for James’s multimedia platform, Uninterrupted.
LeBron openly campaigned for Hillary Clinton in Ohio during the 2016 presidential election and has been more critical of Trump than former Celtics Isaiah Thomas was of the Cavaliers during his brief stint as James’s teammate.
The conservative political commentator Ingraham mocked and belittled James and Durant for their grammar and syntax. She called the players’ comments ignorant. She admonished James and Durant to “keep the political commentary to yourself or as someone once said, shut up and dribble.” She seemed to be genuinely offended that mere professional athletes would have the audacity to discuss the president of the United States.
Ingraham’s message went beyond saying you don’t know what you’re talking about to conveying the idea that athletes have no right to express themselves when it comes to politics.
She’s not the only one who feels that way, which is alarming. News flash, professional athletes don’t surrender their right to free speech or to participate in political discourse the moment they put on a uniform. Are all the takes from athletes going to be insightful and informed? No. But the same goes for the general population of the country, from coal miners to hedge fund managers. Being an athlete doesn’t mean you get stripped of your right to critique our democracy or our government.
Whether you work at Dunkin’ Donuts or dunk a basketball for a living you have the same constitutional right to participate in America’s cacophonous political debate. Politics isn’t for everybody, but it can be talked about by anybody.
CBS Sports broadcaster and former Harvard basketball player James Brown hosted a forum on athlete activism in September at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Brown patently rejected the notion that athletes are required to refrain from social or political commentary.
“It’s interesting that people have the attitude of ‘stick to sports,’ ’’ said Brown. “Athletes are very much a part of the community, absolutely citizens like anybody else. People say, ‘Well, why don’t they take their advocacy to another arena?’ Are you kidding me? Are they supposed to marginalize their feelings like they don’t have an impact. It’s a shame that people have to have that colonial mind-set of ‘stick to sports.’ ”
One of the chief arguments against the activism that NFL players displayed during the national anthem last season, particularly in the wake of disparaging comments from Trump labeling players who chose to kneel for the anthem as “sons of bitches,” was that they were making a political statement while they were at work. The argument was the average citizen can’t do that.
In this case, James and Durant weren’t at work. Yet their right to express a political opinion is still being attacked.
Let’s say James and Durant were misguided and misinformed in their comments. James said the president “is someone who doesn’t understand the people and really don’t give a [expletive] about the people.”
Durant compared the country to a basketball team that lacked leadership. “When we’re talking about leadership and what’s going on in our country it’s all about leadership, and I learned that playing basketball,” said Durant. “I learned a lot of life skills from playing basketball. You need to empower people, you need to encourage people. That’s what builds a great team, and I feel like our team as a country is not ran by a great coach.”
There are lots of Americans that may be misinformed in their political stances, yet they don’t get shamed or shouted down for sharing their thoughts. Does the athlete deserve disenfranchisement because he or she makes more money or engages in physical work? If that’s the case there would be a lot of hard-working Americans and wealthy donors on both sides of the aisle surprised to learn their political opinions are invalid on those grounds.
The athlete, particularly the black athlete, is able to add a unique perspective to the conversation, just like other cross-sections of the American public. Why is the unvarnished opinion of an unemployed coal miner from West Virginia or a factory worker from Michigan or a bar owner in Wisconsin more legitimate and acceptable than that of an athlete?
Sounding off on a topic when one is not an expert in said field is the American way. There are few more quintessentially American acts. Are politicos, pundits, and policy wags the only ones allowed to discuss politics now?
The irony of Ingraham’s long-standing aversion to entertainers and athletes talking about politics is that before he became president, Trump was similar to James. He was a multimillionaire celebrity entertainer expressing his negative views regarding a sitting president. That wasn’t a problem.
Yet Ingraham condescended to and excoriated James and Durant. She called James’s take on Trump “barely intelligible” and “ungrammatical” — both attributes of some of the president’s communication.
Ingraham actually started her anti-athlete screed by saying this is a “Jumb Dock Alert.” Clearly, she meant “Dumb Jock Alert.” Maybe we should we have derided and dismissed everything she said after that because she misspoke.
What’s interesting is that politics and sports actually share common ground. Both have strident commentators and supposed experts. In both, people just want to see their team win. Opinions in both are often shaped more by unfailing loyalty to a particular side than objective logic.
The Patriots’ Not Done Network at Super Bowl LII displayed more objectivity than most political commentary.
I don’t recall any criticism from Ingraham or her ilk when Patriots coach Bill Belichick penned a supportive letter to Trump, a letter Trump read at a campaign rally in New Hampshire before the election.
Where was Ingraham to tell Belichick to shut up and blow his whistle?
James and Durant aren’t required to shut up and dribble any more than anyone else is required to shut up and shovel coal, shut up and build air conditioners or shut up and serve drinks.
They’re Americans first and athletes second.
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