‘Stick to sports.”
That’s the familiar refrain from football fans, who are tired of hearing about politics every time they turn on ESPN. It’s true: The sports media doesn’t abide by that rule, in large part because the athletes they cover don’t either. The frontman for this burgeoning group of activist athletes is former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. During last season’s year-long protest tour, Kaepernick traveled the country, kneeling during the national anthem before each game in protest of what he considered the U.S.’s oppression of African Americans and attending press conferences clad in Fidel Castro gear.
Sure enough, talking heads — the ones on the radio, First Take, and SportsCenter — are dutifully following the protest posse, turning a network whose name once stood for entertainment and sports programming into one that also and often covers politics.
The tenor of this coverage has been predictable. Writing here at National Review Online, David French observed that
sportswriters who could brilliantly break down the weaknesses of the Cover 2 defense proved that they were no better than dorm-room ideologues when speaking about politics. They knew they were right. Their peers mainly agreed with them. And anyone who disagreed was ignorant and likely racist.
This is an important point: Kaepernick and his comrades receive laudatory coverage from the sports media despite the belief of some fans that these protests are wrongheaded or disrespectful. Pundits give off the whiff of elitism and the stench of arrogance when they treat their audience, and the beliefs of that audience, with such contempt: “You are a f***ing liar,” Deadspin graciously explained to those who said that such protests would cause them to stop watching.
But those fans aren’t really sticking to sports, either.
It’s one thing to lament the takeover of sports by politics, and quite another to take the political bait. When the Baltimore Ravens, stuck with an injured starting quarterback and an abysmal backup, considered signing the competent Kaepernick, its fans wrote the Baltimore Sun, called in to local radio, and attended the team’s practices to make clear they opposed his joining the team. Owner Steve Bisciotti reportedly overruled the coach and general manager to obstruct the signing. More broadly, the NFL suffered lower ratings across the board last season, and a survey found the primary cause was players’ protesting of the national anthem. Ravens fans didn’t oppose adding Kaepernick for any football-related reason. Football fans around the country didn’t stop watching because the football was less entertaining. What motivated both was, instead, politics.
It’s one thing to lament the takeover of sports by politics, and quite another to take the political bait.
Of course, these fans are free to choose what they watch and what they don’t. He who wants to follow football and not politics actually can. Politics won’t disappear from sports because of a tepid boycott of the leviathan NFL or political criticism of social-justice true believers like Kaepernick. It can and will, however, for fans who practice benign neglect, who watch the games and cut out the tripe. Jabrill Peppers might be kneeling before the game starts, but all that really matters after kickoff is whether he can cut it as a safety. First Take might feature endless, tiresome, amateurish political discussion, but smart analysis abounds on TV and the Internet.
David is right: “It’s silly to think that public disapproval doesn’t play a role” in Kaepernick’s persistent unemployment. And that’s a sign that sports is just becoming more politicized — and not just by protesting players. We’re already in a world where players’ political opinions are litigated endlessly in the sanctimonious sports media. We’re now entering a world where, for many fans, their alignment with those opinions determines whether or not they watch a game or approve of a signing. This is lamentable, but luckily, there’s a solution that’s more efficacious than a boycott:
Stick to sports.
— Theodore Kupfer is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.