- The activism that exploded among athletes this year did not begin when the polls closed last November, but Trump’s election was the match to the fuse. And unlike in the past, this time around, the athletes and sports figures won't be easily dismissed.
Like so many of the other institutions of politics and culture that we thought were durable, and like so many of the norms in politics and culture that we thought were permanent, the sports-entertainment industrial complex woke up a year ago to face a different world than the one it had known the night before. The election of Donald J. Trump to be president—a man who, in his previous foray into professional sports had managed to kill off an entire football league—apparently on a platform that could be summed up fairly as, “Let’s rip everything to shreds and throw the shreds up in front of an electric fan and see how the pieces fall together,” meant that nothing was safe in this country from disruption for disruption’s sake.
The activism that exploded among athletes this year did not begin when the polls closed last November. The killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012 prompted demonstrations across the spectrum, most notably among the members of the Miami Heat, who took the court wearing hoodies. The Black Lives Matter movement, which was created in response to repeated acts of police violence against ordinary citizens, already had a foothold among athletes long before the surreal possibility of President Donald Trump became a stunning reality. The powder was primed. Trump’s election was the match to the fuse.
Since then, we’ve seen athletes decline to visit the White House because of its current temporary occupant; again, this is nothing new. But the current temporary occupant also owns a whole bunch of hotels, and according to the Washington Post, at least 16 professional teams, including the 2016 World Series champion Chicago Cubs and the NBA champion Golden State Warriors, are refusing to stay in them. That is very new. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has become the center of a noxious controversy about the proper decorum with which to observe the National Anthem before our ballgames, a bizarre tradition that I’ve never fully understood. Unfortunately, this has obscured Kaepernick’s original intent, which was to call attention (again) to police violence, and it also has obscured the obvious fact that Kaepernick’s political stance has caused him to be blackballed from the NFL. The open question is whether or not this sudden burst of athlete activism will continue, or if it will it peter out over the next decade the way the previous era of the activist athlete did in the 1980’s. My guess is that it will go on, for a number of different reasons.
First, the current president is not going anywhere any time soon, and his only real political gift is starting messy political fights and then stepping back to watch the carnage. He bungled into the middle of the anthem controversy, called professional football players “sons of bitches” to the delight of his fans, and guaranteed that the controversy would intensify going forward. He is not likely to develop a gift for conciliation in his early 70’s, so one of the most obvious causes of the recent protests will be with us for a few more years, at least.
Second, it was easy to turn off the last outburst of activism among high-profile athletes. All you had to do was either stop paying attention to them or buy them off, both tactics at which the corporate class in America had had plenty of practice. The former was easy; all you had to do was coordinate three television networks. The second was even easier. As the money grew larger, the risk of losing it grew larger still. When Michael Jordan made that infamous remark about how Republicans also bought shoes, he was speaking for a generation of athletes whether they thought he was or not. Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, political statements by athletes were crushed with cold efficiency. Craig Hodges, a gifted three-point shooter, was outspoken in his politics, even presenting President George H.W. Bush with a letter about problems in the inner-city, when the Chicago Bulls visited the White House. In 1992, the Bulls cut him and Hodges, in an eerie precursor of what’s happening to Colin Kaepernick today, found himself unable to get a job in the NBA.
However, silencing athletes is not that easy to do any more, Kaepernick’s situation notwithstanding. The generations of young athletes coming up today are more aware of the world around them because they are the first generations to come of age in the middle of the great acceleration that has come with the Internet. Many of them were raised in virtual communities as real to them as the brick-and-mortar neighborhoods where they lived. They have had news and information coming at them at frightening speeds and from every direction, and they’ve adapted to the reality of the new information age arguably better than the people who own the teams, or run the colleges, where they now compete.
I remember covering the lawsuit that Ed O’Bannon lodged against the NCAA and being told by people on O’Bannon’s legal team how important it had been for them that O’Bannon had reached out on social media to other athletes, building a community of support for the action he had taken. “These kids,” said Sonny Vaccaro, a legendary figure in the basketball underground for decades, “they know a lot better than the coaches and administrators how to coordinate things.”
It’s impossible to imagine how the various public protests that have broken out in stadiums and arenas would have been possible if not for the ability of athletes to coordinate their actions on social media. In addition, any pushback from the other side, such as Houston Texans owner Bob McNair’s ridiculous statement about letting his “inmates run the prison,” gets spread around almost the moment it occurs, and if there’s one thing that athletes are good at in their day jobs, it’s rapid response.
The phenomenon of instant communication and virtual community will have one more effect going forward that was not available to, say, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, when they got run out of sports after their demonstration on the victory stand at the 1968 Olympics. There is another generation of athletes coming up, and another one after that, each more tech-savvy than the previous one. The deluge of information is going to intensify as the technology accelerates its delivery. Kids today have the entire world, and all of its problems and issues, right there in their pocket. Everything is immediate, whether it’s a flood in Bangladesh, or a boy shot down on the sidewalk in Florida. Nothing is out of reach.
One of the other benefits of this technology is that it has pretty much transformed the phrase, “Stick to sports” into a meme for mockery. Two of the main voices of resistance over the past year have been NBA coaches —Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, and Steve Kerr of the Warriors. Both of them have made more sense on more issues than many of the people who get paid to spout off on TV, and many of the people who get elected to make laws for the rest of us. Neither seems inclined to stick to sports any time soon. Frankly, anyone who laments the involvement of “politics” in sports is too ignorant to opine about either one. The moment that baseball segregated itself, politics was there. The day that the Dodgers and Giants moved to California, politics was there. Every time a team holds up a city for a new ballpark or arena, politics are there. Popovich and Kerr, and Colin Kaepernick, and the people who are supporting him, probably see this more clearly than anyone else and, this time, my guess is that the impulse behind the protests won’t be so easily dispersed, or bribed into silence.
And besides, as I said, Donald Trump is still president. This remains a fact. The next controversy is only a tweet away, god help us.