Taking on the “Stick to Sports” Myth

Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Note: Kevin wrote about this topic on Tuesday from a media/fan standpoint. Tim approaches it from another angle.

On Saturday night, Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly skated toward the penalty box after a brief scrap with Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Connor Murphy. By NHL standards, it wasn’t a particularly strange scene. Smith-Pelly’s team was getting hammered by a score of 7-1, and T.J. Oshie, one of the Caps’ star players, had just absorbed a hit from Murphy. Given the circumstances of the game, retribution was required. This is how the justice system in the NHL works:

Once Smith-Pelly entered the sin bin, he was greeted with chants of “basketball, basketball, basketball!” by a small group of Blackhawks fans sitting nearby. It doesn’t take much of a logical leap to understand the implication of the taunt.

Smith-Pelly confronted the four fans, who were ejected from the game by security. The incident occurred in the middle of Black History Month and during the NHL’s “Hockey is for Everyone” campaign. In a postgame interview, Smith-Pelly lamented the continued presence of these racially-charged jeers decades after the integration of the game.

Smith-Pelly’s unpleasant interaction in Chicago called to mind other episodes of racism that made news in the hockey world in the past. Most Flyers fans will recall the banana that was thrown at Wayne Simmonds during an exhibition game in Canada in 2011. After scoring a game-winning and series-clinching goal against the Boston Bruins in the 2012 playoffs, Joel Ward was subjected to a nasty avalanche of negative, racist tweets from disgruntled Bruins fans. During a preseason interview in which he openly contemplated kneeling during the national anthem, Ward asserted that he has dealt with racism daily during his hockey career.

The Smith-Pelly incident made for an interesting juxtaposition with a segment that aired on Fox News last week. In a clip that became a major discussion point during NBA All-Star Weekend, political commentator Laura Ingraham attacked LeBron James for what she characterized as his “barely intelligible” criticism of President Trump.

“Must they run their mouths like that?” Ingraham wondered rhetorically, with the wistful tone an elderly bigot might take when recalling the “good old days” when black folks knew their place and shut the hell up.

Ingraham concluded her remarks by spitting the dog whistle out of her mouth and demanding that James and Kevin Durant “shut up and dribble.” In another time, we might have questioned why a Dartmouth alumna and a coastal elite was speaking so poorly of an Ohio high school graduate who capitalized on his talents and turned his name into a lucrative brand. However, such a perspective is no longer politically expedient:

But let’s leave politics out of this space. There’s no need to bring up the inconvenient fact that Ingraham fervently supported a presidential candidate in 2016 who, prior to being elected for anything, routinely criticized politicians for various perceived indiscretions or poor decisions; who, despite Americans re-electing President Obama as their “coach” in 2012, called the process a “travesty” and demanded a “march on Washington;” who made a political career out of doubting the legitimacy of President Obama’s place of birth and his academic credentials; and who throughout his own tenure as president has lobbed “barely intelligible” and “ungrammatical” criticisms at his opponents on Twitter.

No, we don’t want to explore this stuff. It would be an exercise in what Ingraham and her elite Ivy League friends would call a tu quoque logical fallacy. If you’re not familiar with this term, there’s no need to look it up; just imagine any argument you’ve ever seen on social media.

Besides, we talk about sports on this website. And, as we all know, sports and politics mix like oil and water.

At least that’s the message many of us are sending to any athlete who dares migrate from the playing field to the political arena. Sports serve as our refuge from the troubles of the world; we watch because we want to get away from frustrating political debates conducted by intractable pundits who seem to bicker about the same topics every day. We’re tired of the noise, of listening to it all. We just want to relax and watch a game.

It’s a fair point of view to hold, albeit a bit selfish. After all, athletes do not enjoy the benefits of escapism that we derive from sporting events. Smith-Pelly’s experience over the weekend reinforces the notion that players are not inoculated from the problems of the real world just because they don a uniform.

We also expect our athletes to be role models. We applaud when Chris Long donates his entire salary to fund scholarships, or when Malcolm Jenkins engages in his various endeavors to serve impoverished communities. When athletes fall from the pedestals we build for them, as Jahlil Okafor did several times during his short tenure with the 76ers, we blast the news on the Internet and on the front pages of the sports section of the newspaper.

We shuttle athletes into a pseudo-minor league system in which they represent a college or university in exchange for a free education. Yet when they employ this education to speak about the state of affairs between minority communities and police officers instead of how to beat a blitz, we get angry or annoyed.

We compel them to stand for a rendition of the national anthem before they go to work. We ask them to attend a ceremonial event at the White House when they win a championship. If they do anything to deviate from the script or otherwise ruin our made-for-TV patriotic rituals, we tell them derisively to “stick to sports.” Ingraham, or someone of her ilk, will exploit any instance of an athlete stepping out of his lane as more fuel for the perpetual outrage machine that powers our politics.

Instead of worrying about athletes getting too political, we should question why politics increasingly resembles sports. Turn on any cable news station at any time of day and notice how political discussions have devolved into something you might hear on sports talk radio or see on First Take. The issues of the day are debated with the same contrived intensity that colors a professional wrestling feud. It must be cathartic to watch someone with whom you disagree be “owned”or “destroyed” by a well-crafted talking point during a shout fest, but it’s certainly not productive.

The very people who claim to be in the business of informing us are too busy trying to entertain us. And that’s a much bigger problem than an entertainer trying to inform us.


31 Responses

  1. Where is the story. Everyone is talking it about it!!!

  2. Tim probably was the first to complain about Tebow and his Jesus pro-life nonsense, amirite?

    Athletes with political opinions are fine, as long as they are liberal opinions.

  3. Athletes interjecting their political beliefs or opinions is a good thing; See Lebron James, Chris Long and Malcolm Jenkins

    Athletes interjecting their politics beliefs or opinions is a bad thing; See Tim Tebow, Curt Schilling and Carson Wentz

    Liberals are wonderful hypocrites

    1. I actually had Tim Thomas (the Bruins goalie) in mind when I was writing this post, among a few other athletes. And I wrote a post for another site about a year back arguing that Curt Schilling belongs in Cooperstown.
      Which is all a long way of saying conservative opinions deserve as much room as liberal opinions. But I don’t view calling out racism as a liberal identifier.

  4. How can a comment with no swearing etc not be approved
    Is it when you challenge the author? Maybe I should just comment about Etyan Shander or Dave Spadaro then

  5. Just dipping my toes into this cesspool of a comment board to say nice work, Tim. Great read and well done.

  6. Terrible column, really weak effort by Timmy, especially since he apparently spent so much time on it. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Kinker’s column yesterday on the same subject was a much better piece. Hey Timmy, I know sometimes Millennials get accused (unfairly) of not knowing anything about history and thinking the whole world started when they were born, but this rambling, worthless screed kind of epitomizes that. You say that political talk today seems like it’s trying to mimic First Take and those shows, but actually First Take and those shows are sports rip-offs of political shows like Crossfire that ran for over 20 years. The Sports Reporters is a sports rip off of the McLaughlin Group. So rather than saying that politics are trying to be like sports talk shows, it’s actually the other way around and it’s been that way for a long time. Plenty of other misguided slop in this column but this is already too long

  7. I think this is a pretty good take. Interesting, isn’t it, that the people who clamor the loudest about athletes sticking to sports are often the same ones who voted a reality TV star into the highest political office in our country? Seems like as of November 2016, any claims that a person who doesn’t work in politics shouldn’t have a political opinion and share it broadly with whatever platform they’re blessed to have kind of went out the window. I get not wanting to see political takes when you’re just trying to enjoy a game, but it is indeed selfish of us to think that people we gain value from watching express their physical talents on a field should be so robotic as to not have opinions on the political climate nor want to share them publicly with the platform they’ve earned, especially if they think it can make a difference and perhaps even create some good.

  8. Jesus the cuz’s show is so bad this morning . Trying to listen to it this morning and can’t do it

  9. Funny all the media is saying that the Florida activists are students and not actors, but still no proof that they go to that school. When is the left and antifa going to do something that actually works? Hashtag stupid

  10. These comments….kind of interesting…..ehhhh, no its def not interesting, who am I kidding. I was expecting these kinds of responses to a solid piece…because well…. trolls gotta troll. Someone legit complaining/trolling that their crap comments are being filtered out….this is THEIR website, they control whatever they wish…go on IRC or REDDIT and find \r\troll and have at it over there budddd.

    FWIW – Nice article Tim!

  11. To call that a hockey fight? Both dudes should be kicked out of the league after that turd. What happened to hockey?

  12. im surprised it took you 6 paragraphs to imply ingram is a racist. Your liberal buddies are going to revoke your libtard club card.

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