If you’ve opened Twitter or a newspaper in the last few days — or your eyes for that matter — you’ve probably seen a photo of kneeling National Football League players. They stand with their arms locked. Some bow their heads; others stare boldly onward. Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel was a small spark that remained kindled for over a year, before spreading like wildfire through our public sphere, fueled by the rhetorical gasoline of our president.
Whether you agree or disagree with the merit or the manner of the demonstrations is irrelevant. But I will spare you the long First Amendment diatribe. This is a sports column, and I can already hear my editors barking at me to “stay in my lane.” Instead, I want to address something else: the curious surprise of the media. On “Hardball” with Chris Matthews, the host expressed his disbelief that this issue, more than any other, has gotten the attention of the entire nation. Mathews is not alone in his surprise.
On Monday morning, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial titled “The Politicization of Everything.” The article ends on the leap of faith that “American democracy was healthier when politics at the ballpark was limited to fans booing politicians who threw out the first ball.” In the editorial board’s eyes, “the losers are the millions of Americans who would rather cheer for their teams on Sunday as a respite from work and the other divisions of American life.”
In one sense, the editorial board is right. Sports are a time when millions of Americans tune in together. In unison, viewers perform the same act; and, as it were, form a community. For the NFL, this community is often the only one that the incredibly diverse viewership will ever share. Thus, in one sense, yes: millions of Americans, despite their differences, do want to cheer on their teams together.
But like every American community, sports have never been a completely peaceful respite — the very fact Kaepernick sought to address. To assume that now, more than ever, our sports are a bastion of polarization is to harken to a past that never was, to reflexively imagine a history that never happened — a fabricated time, shall we say, when “America Was Great.”
In 1976, the Yale men’s crew team lay mired in the worst run of the program’s history. Nevertheless, it was equipped with the best of everything: state-of-the-art shells and oars, and a brand-new boathouse. On the other hand, the nascent women’s program, founded four years earlier with the passage of Title IX, was bereft of many of the law’s requirements.
Most poignantly, they had to wait on the bus, drenched in sweat from the day’s regatta, for the men to finish their showers. This inequity begot an idea. A group of 19 rowers informed a YDN reporter of their plan. The women marched into the office of Joni Barnett, the Director of Women’s Athletics and Physical Education, and stripped naked, revealing the words Title IX emblazoned in Bulldog blue across their chests and backs.
A year later, the women got their own locker room.
Outside Yale, athletes’ protests have been even more profound and visible. In the heat of the U.S. civil rights ,movement, Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the Olympic Podium. Around their necks, their gold and bronze shined against the dark backdrop of the night. But their fists, clothed in black gloves, were what stood out. Raised above their heads, the two athletes held the Black Power salute.
Smith and Carlos were removed from the subsequent relay races, suspended from the U.S. National team, threatened and vilified. Like Kaepernick, their demonstration was in peaceful silence. Like Kaepernick, their careers suffered.
The field has always been a place where the tensions of the world have been made manifest: Our athletes have often stood for more than their team, their city or even their sport. But often, it is more than just the players. It is the fans — those watching at home and those inside the stadium — that have been politicized.
At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s Red Army skated on American ice against the Philadelphia Flyers. Philadelphians whose signs usually bashed New York or Boston, held up “TELL IT TO THE CZAR” and “OUR SYSTEM IS BETTER,” instead. This was a battle of capitalism against communism.
The Flyers — then better known as “The Broadstreet Bullies” — were the most hated team in hockey. And yet, when the players in black and orange faced the Soviets, the Flyers stood for all of the Red, White and Blue. When the Broadstreet Bullies battered the Soviets, forcing them to skate off the ice in the middle of the first period in protest, Philadelphia represented more than just a city in America. A single sports team, if only for that night, stood for the triumph of capitalism.
At the Olympics in 1968, in Philadelphia in 1976 and in New Haven in 2016, sports were infused with politics. Then — just as now — the tensions of the times have erupted on the field of play.
Kevin Bendesky | firstname.lastname@example.org