Mark your calendars. Because September 2017 is the month when one of our favorite forms of escapism—watching sports—got completely co-opted by politics. This has caused a lot of friction across America, with angry people, covered in Dorito dust and buffalo sauce, shouting their favorite refrain, “STICK TO SPORTS!”
But we can’t. And here’s a series of things that happened that add up to reasons why not.
Jemele Hill, co-host of ESPN’s 6 P.M. broadcast of SportsCenter, put out a series of tweets that called the President and those surrounding him white supremacists. In response, President Trump’s Twitter fingers took aim at Hill and ESPN, and his press secretary essentially called on the network to fire their host. Hill later apologized for her tweets reflecting negatively on ESPN, and who wrote this incredibly thoughtful reflection on the most hellacious week of her career.
About a week later while attending a rally in Alabama, Trump called NFL players who knelt during the national anthem “sons of bitches” and said they should be fired.
Trump went back to Twitter that Saturday to disinvite Steph Curry, the face of the 2017 NBA Champion Golden State Warriors, from coming to the White House. Curry’s offense? He simply mentioned that he had considered not going. A reminder for those scoring at home. When Tom Brady didn’t attend, we didn’t hear a peep from Trump.
Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team.Stephen Curry is hesitating,therefore invitation is withdrawn!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 23, 2017
Also on Twitter, LeBron James, presently the greatest basketball player on the planet, offered this legendary response to his NBA Finals rival.
U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain't going! So therefore ain't no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!
— LeBron James (@KingJames) September 23, 2017
On Sunday, the day reserved for church, football, and now protests, many NFL players, some owners, and even coaches “took a knee” during the national anthem. The show of unity continued into Monday night, where Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones kneeled with his team prior to the national anthem and then stood up during the playing of the song. Jones personally saw to it that cameras were in position to capture the choreographed moment, but that made the message no less meaningful.
That same week, we also had NBA media days. LeBron James and Gregg Popovich, the two of biggest names in the NBA, did not mince words when discussing the Trump administration or the level of inequality in American society today. (I beg you to please listen to this clip of Gregg Popovich.)
To quote Canadian philosopher Aubrey “Drake” Graham, “what a time to be alive.” Because as society becomes polarized, insular, and unable to have complex conversations in the common square, we have had to move them to the field. Or the court. Or to anywhere else we play. Because sports are the only place where people from all walks of life—no matter race, religion, sexuality, socio-economic status—come together to cheer on the same team.And that’s a pretty big adjustment for folks looking to kick back and just watch the game. People who want us to STICK TO SPORTS. But we can’t do that anymore. These issues have become the biggest stories in sports.
The phrase of “stick to sports” is like running to “base” in a crazy game of hide and seek or tag. Sports are supposed to be, or were supposed to be, or maybe actually never were supposed to be, a safe zone. They are a place where we start on the same side—rooting for our team—and can maybe bridge the divide and listen to each other to learn about perspectives from those with a different race, religion, sexuality, or socio-economic status.
I know it’s uncomfortable, annoying, and exhausting. But so are the racial issues in this country affecting those of us without the privilege of whiteness.
The good news is this. While this new game of tag may feel deflating, confusing, and baffling, American athletes are just big and bad enough to play. That’s what the month of September showed us.
So for now, there is no “base,” nowhere to run and nowhere safe from discomfort. Just a baseline common denominator to continue the conversation: we all still love sports.