Sports need politics the way the pope needs a bowling trophy. For a spectator, sports provide a relief from politics and much else in a world that is too much with us. Yet in our intensely political time, sports have been invaded by politics. Thus as the long-delayed baseball season begins, we see “BLM” stamped on pitcher’s mounds or behind home plate in some major-league ballparks. An old riddle asks the last two words of the national anthem: “Play ball!” But now, as the national anthem plays, ballplayers kneel to protest the injustice of a country they feel plagued by racism, and things get off no longer to a rousing but to a depressing start.
Athletes usually don’t have much to lose in bringing their politics with them to the game. Perhaps the first notable postwar intrusion of politics into sports came with the famous Black Power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two American sprinters, from the winners platforms at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, which at the time offended many people.
In the current day LeBron James, the best player in the National Basketball Association, risks nothing, not even his lucrative endorsements, in regularly displaying his opinions on racial issues. In the National Football League, Colin Kaepernick suffered in 2016 for being the first athlete to take the knee during the national anthem. Many fans were angry. They felt that it was disrespectful to the country and that they didn’t pay the nearly extortionate prices charged for NFL tickets to be reminded that the world hadn’t attained perfect justice.
Jackie Robinson might have been the only athlete who was a true political hero. He bravely integrated baseball in 1947, while fans from the stands and opposing players from their dugouts taunted him with racial slurs. With almost superhuman restraint, Robinson played hard and well, opening Major League Baseball for all qualified black players.
“Today is Opening Day,” reads a tweet from the Tampa Bay Rays’ official Twitter account, “which means it’s a great day to arrest the killers of Breonna Taylor,” victim of a Louisville, Ky., police shooting in March. The team also announced a $100,000 annual donation to local organizations that “fight systemic racism.” The San Francisco Giants knelt during the anthem before their opening game, except pitcher Sam Coonrod, a devout Christian who kneels only to God. Expect more politics as baseball progresses and more still as basketball resumes and football gets under way. The full rosters of four NBA teams also took the knee in their opening games Thursday.
Yet the question isn’t whether there is racism in America, or whether it is rampant or even systemic, but whether it is likely to be reduced by bringing it up at sports events.
What made the great Southern civil-rights marches of the early 1960s so impressive—and effective—was the courage it took to participate in them. With police dogs howling and state troopers swinging billy clubs, in an atmosphere without the least sympathy for their cause, those who marched against racial injustice were no less than glorious, as most acts of physical courage on behalf of good causes are. Their doing so also stirred the consciences of people who hadn’t thought much about the blatant racial injustice of that day.
Are a group of multimillionaire athletes, among the most favored people in the nation, kneeling or walking out while “The Star-Spangled Banner” is sung likely to stir anyone, let alone change anyone’s mind? Can the exhibition of their virtue through televised protest possibly move those who come to games or watch them on television in the hope of forgetting their own and the nation’s troubles, if only for a few hours? In the end the effect of those athletes who insist upon bringing their politics onto the field may well be the reverse of what they hope it will be.
Mr. Epstein is author, most recently, of “Charm: The Elusive Enchantment.”
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