Last night, the president came after the assorted NFL players who have been kneeling for the national anthem. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He’s fired,’” Trump asked the crowd at his Alabama rally. This morning, he criticized NBA player Stephen Curry for hesitating to accept an invitation to the White House, and rescinded the invitation to Curry’s league-champion Golden State Warriors. Comments like these make sports a political battleground.
People may want to live in a world where they can follow sports without having to follow politics. That state of affairs certainly seems nice to me, and I think interested fans can cultivate it for themselves. Sick of hearing about national-anthem protests instead of analysis of the game? Turn off First Take and read Pro Football Focus. Care more about Colin Kaepernick’s football ability than his affection for dictators? Don’t complain that your team might sign him if he’ll help them out on the field.
Sports has never been completely separate from politics — athletes are human beings with convictions, after all — but it’s true that the distance between the two is growing smaller. But it is impossible to assign all the blame to athletes and anchors when the president makes comments like this. Nobody can fairly demand that Curry or his teammates stay silent, and no one can reasonably expect national-anthem protests to subside. Athletes will react to what Trump said, and journalists will cover their reaction. The president stoked the debate.
Yes, the sports media can be glib in its coverage of politically fraught stories. When athletes engage in political conduct, sports journalists say they have no choice but to cover it, but they tend to cover politics in a way that ignores the heterogeneous leanings of their audience. Just last week SportsCenter anchor Jemele Hill tweeted that the president is a “white supremacist,” which indicts millions of people who watch her show.
Yet after Hill’s tweet, the president’s press secretary chimed in, appearing to recommend that Hill be fired. And over the last twelve hours, the president called football players sons of bitches and scolded a basketball player and his team. If people are genuinely upset that politics has entered the arena, they should know who to blame.