The Fading Line between Politics and Sports
Sports have become increasingly politicized, leading to ramifications on and off the field.
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Winning the Talladega Speedway race was supposed to be a celebratory moment for Brandon Brown. After all, it was his first NASCAR race victory. Instead, the headline of his win was replaced by a meme. In his post-race interview with an NBC reporter, fans behind Brown were audibly chanting. Not “Let’s Go Brandon” as the reporter on air initially misheard, but “F— Joe Biden.”
Conservatives quickly picked up on the trend, and “Let’s Go Brandon” became a rallying cry for the Republican Party. Trump supporters now wave flags bearing Brown’s name and Donald Trump Jr. even started a “Let’s Go Brandon” chant at an event. Brown has been hurled into the national spotlight, not for his historic win but as a political ploy.
NASCAR has long been known as the sport of the South, and by extension, conservatives. Roughly 40 percent of fans are from the South, with just 20 percent of fans being Black or Latino. Last year, NASCAR made headlines as they finally banned the Confederate flag from events after a campaign mounted by Black driver Bubba Wallace. Brown has been dragged into a political conversation he wants no part in. The New York Times conducted a feature piece on him in the aftermath with one emerging message: Brandon Brown just wants to race.
Five years ago, the line between politics and sports was also crossed when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled for the national anthem. By the end of the season, he was out of contract and has been out of the NFL ever since. This isn’t the case of a player simply not good enough, either. Kaepernick led his team to the Super Bowl, an accolade only a select few can boast. This is a league in which the Giants fielded a quarterback who passed for negative yards this year; a quarterback who is struggling so much that the coach chose to run quarterback sneaks on second-and-10 and then third-and-nine inside their own five-yard line because he wasn’t confident in him to pass for yardage. Kaepernick wasn’t cut because of a lack of talent. He was blackballed from the sport of football.
Former President Trump, in an expletive-laden message, infamously tweeted to Kaepernick that he was fired. Kaepernick was trying to protest for social justice, but instead, this spelled out an untimely end to his career. The president and his millions of followers—which include the majority of NFL owners—immediately saw Kaepernick as a threat and ended his career. Fifty-seven percent of NFL fans are white, and 62 percent identify as either Republican or Independent. Meanwhile, just 29 percent of the league’s players are white. This wide disparity in the racial makeup of fans and athletes creates unnecessary political tension in an environment that is meant to be an oasis from it.
While Kaepernick can’t find a job because of his protesting for social justice, domestic violence offenders have found that their crimes have been consistently forgiven by sports fans and leagues. Look no further than Kareem Hunt’s re-entrance into the league or former Patriots offensive lineman Kenyatta Jones, who continued to play in the NFL after pouring scalding hot water on his roommate then later urinating on the dance floor of a Tampa club. There is no better example illustrating this than NFL wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Brown was released by the Pittsburgh Steelers in January 2020 after a productive nine-year tenure where he earned seven Pro Bowl nods amid misconduct allegations. Despite this, the Las Vegas Raiders signed him, but it was not to be. Brown never even played a game for the Raiders, ending in Brown requesting his release to his 6.1 million followers on Instagram. Soon after, quarterback Tom Brady lobbied for the New England Patriots to acquire Brown. Brown appeared in one game before he was cut as further allegations came up, including one from his athletic trainer in 2019 and another from an artist in 2017, to which Brown responded by texting a photo of the accusers’ children to her. A rational person would begin to sense a pattern, but it turns out that the NFL was willing to give Brown a fourth chance. Brown won a Super Bowl with the Buccaneers and was a consistent member of the Tampa Bay offense.
This season, however, the saga has continued. First, Brown lied about his vaccination status, leading to a three-game suspension. Then, in a Week 17 matchup against the New York Jets, Brown took off his uniform, riled up the crowd, and ran off the field. This happened while Brady and the Bucs offense were getting ready to run a play. Tampa Bay Head Coach Bruce Arians in his postgame conference said that Brown was no longer a Buc. If this was indeed finally the last time Antonio Brown stepped onto the field on a Sunday, let it be a cautionary tale to the league and to sports in general. Football fans, while disapproving of Brown’s conduct, found it in their hearts to forgive Brown because of his achievements as a player. In fact, they may do it again. Regardless, by turning a blind eye to misconduct and violence of its athletes, the NFL has only tarnished its own reputation.
The NBA is a rare example of a league that has been run right. Contributing to this is the fact that, out of the four major American sports leagues, the NBA has the most diverse fanbase. Fifty percent of the fan base is Black or Latino, while 46 percent is white. This has created a climate in which players are more comfortable making their voices heard and pushing their causes for social justice. In the NBA Bubble, for instance, Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul George and the Milwaukee Bucks sparked a boycott of sports games in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake. This boycott extended to all other games in the NBA as well as many other sports leagues with games slated for that day. NBA players also regularly wear shoes that show support for various social justice causes.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver stands alone from the other commissioners of major North American sports. While the NFL’s Roger Goodell is booed wherever he goes, Silver has earned the respect of fans and players alike. The commissioner’s job is to run the league, and whoever runs it sets the tone for the league. Goodell is known for implementing a “No Fun League,” one without fun celebrations and without good-natured taunting. More importantly, while Goodell has often been lax with cases of domestic violence or other social issues, Silver has taken a hard line. In 2014, Silver banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the sport of basketball after multiple racist comments he made to his girlfriend were disclosed.
Until sports leagues take a good look at their policies, athletes, and front offices, issues such as domestic violence, political polarization, and racism will only continue to fester. Let’s make sports a refuge from politics and discrimination again, and let the athletes who deserve to play, play.