The Left Is Weaponizing Sports

Opening day of the NFL football season in Jacksonville, Fla., September 11, 2016. (Reuters photo: Reinhold Matay/USA Today Sports)
What happens when a culture loses its last neutral ground?

Striking the latest blow for pregnant and “chestfeeding” men, the NCAA has mounted its righteous high horse and is pulling seven championship events from North Carolina venues. The Tar Heel State, you see, has the hateful audacity to mandate that its citizens use the public bathrooms that correspond to their biological sex. The NCAA’s decision comes on the heels of the NBA pulling its all-star game from Charlotte, and in the midst of a rolling series of small-scale (though much-hyped) national-anthem protests at NFL football games.

Before I turn to the larger issues, can we just take a moment to ponder the pathetic absurdity that is the NCAA? This is an organization, mind you, that reaps billions of dollars of rewards off the labor of disproportionately poor and minority students while imposing on them — as a condition for even participating in college sports — economic restrictions not imposed on any other college student. So-called student-athletes don’t own their time, or even the rights to their own names. The vast majority of them don’t go on to play pro sports, so they’re effectively prevented from making money during the time when their earning potential is at its highest. But the NCAA is now suddenly discovering social justice? Please.

While the NCAA — as perhaps the peak representative of progressive hypocrisy and cheap virtue signaling — is an easy target, its action raises a much more significant concern. Simply put, there are not many cultural spaces remaining where Americans can meet on more or less neutral ground — where Americans of all faiths and political beliefs can meet, unite, and share a positive communal experience.

Our political polarization is but one symptom of our increasing Balkanization. When I speak, I sometimes challenge audiences to name one significant cultural force or trend that is binding Americans together, rather than pulling them apart.

Social media? It might be the single most divisive new development of the last half-century. Faith? Few communities are polarizing and separating faster than our faith communities, with polar opposites — the “nones” and Evangelicals — enjoying the best prospects for long-term growth. Our neighborhoods and cities are cocooned, often so much that they lack the ideological diversity of the average suburban mega-church. Television shows are frequently micro-targeted, so red and blue Americans watch very different things.

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The result is clear: Not only do Americans believe different things, they dislike their political opponents more than at any other time in recent memory. Indeed, the dislike is so strong that Americans tend to despise the other side more than they like their own side.

I mind when social-justice warriors try to wield the awesome economic power of sports — built via the pocketbooks of all Americans — to punish conservatives.

Sports are perhaps the only significant cultural force to counter this troubling trend. America still watches the Super Bowl. The opening days of March Madness still cripple workplaces across the land. And when a home team wins a championship, the explosion of collective civic joy completely swallows politics — just ask the inhabitants of “Believeland” after their miracle comeback against Golden State.

But it’s more than just the events themselves. Sports carry with them an entire culture through which fans can meet, form friendships, and establish lifelong bonds. Some of the most meaningful friendships of my life were formed through my law-school fantasy-baseball league. More than two decades later, we still have the league and we still love each other like brothers, despite our vast political differences. Sports give us the opportunity to connect and to dig deeper than politics or ideology — to know a person as something other than a collection of political positions.

RELATED: NBA Removes All-Star Game from Charlotte over Bathroom Bill

Social-justice warriors, however, can’t leave well enough alone. Is the trend now that major sporting events can only occur in progressive-approved locations? Will we now be subject to a parade of progressive-approved (and only progressive-approved) player demonstrations? And spare me any argument that our sporting culture is opening itself up to free expression. I’m glad neither the NFL nor the San Francisco 49ers are punishing Colin Kaepernick, but just ask Curt Schilling how much the progressive sports elite values dissent from the social-justice orthodoxy.

I don’t mind if individual players or owners express themselves, so long as it is clearly understood that all viewpoints are welcome. I mind, however, when the sporting elite decides to turn professional and college athletics into a sweatier version of a progressive college campus, speech codes and all. I mind when social-justice warriors try to wield the awesome economic power of sports — built via the pocketbooks of all Americans — to punish conservatives, especially Christian conservatives.

#related#To do that is to play with fire. The NCAA’s decision and Kaepernick’s protest have immense power now precisely because sports has always been neutral ground. The NBA salary cap skyrocketed in part because live sports is one of the most valuable properties in television. End the neutrality, and you will — over time — narrow your audience. ESPN is already struggling with lost revenue due to cord-cutting. It turns out that when consumers can truly choose their channels, they often don’t choose ESPN.

The more ESPN acts like MSNBC, the more consumers will look elsewhere. The more the NCAA acts like Oberlin, the more good will it loses with fans and — crucially — the legislators and other government officials who prop up its insane and unjust business model. Not that most progressives really care. Unity? Fun? Those are meaningless concepts when social justice is at stake.

— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.


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