It’s time to retire “Stick to Sports” and “Shut Up and Dribble”

It’s time to say goodbye to the phrases “stick to sports” and “shut up and dribble.” These quick quips are usually given to athletes, coaches, and people in sports media when they venture to talk about politics, race, or police brutality. This tendency raised its ugly head yet again on Feb 4., when Tony Dungy wrote a cogent open letter to the NFL owners on the topic of minority hiring. Eric Bienemy and other African American coordinators deserve a fair shot to coach an NFL team, and the lack of minority head coaches and coordinators is especially glaring at the college football level.

I do sympathize with those who argue that sports should strive to be uncontroversial and a politics-free zone. Many people use sports as a distraction from their daily lives—and that appeal is completely understandable. Unfortunately, this perhaps earnest plea is outweighed by its pernicious consequences.

The first problem is that the “stick to sports” refrain sometimes carries with it the implication that athletes and/or sportscasters are just jocks and don’t have the proper qualifications to talk about society. This stereotype is harmful, as every citizen in our democracy has the right to speak. Plus, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the stereotype isn’t true — many athletes speak with extensive knowledge and moral conviction.

As alluded to above, the second problem with the “stick to sports” is that there are many ‘political’ issues that intersect with sports in obvious ways such as racism, discrimination, labor rights, amateurism especially with respect to college sports and the Olympics, monopoly power, and unions. If a journalist wants to cover sports, ignoring these issues is also arbitrarily limiting what sports is about.

A short but not exhaustive list of activist athletes includes: Jessie Owens who complained that he was snubbed by FDR more than Hitler; Jackie Robinson who integrated baseball; Muhammad Ali who protested against the Vietnam War; Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Peter Norman who protested at the 1968 Summer Olympics; Curt Flood who challenged the reserve clause in baseball; Steve Prefontaine who complained about amateurism and the Olympics; Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who continue to fight against racism even today; Billie Jean King who fights for gender equality; Martina Navratilova who was the first American athlete to come out as gay; Gary Kasparov who highlights the human rights abuses of Putin; Nick Symmonds who sold a tattoo to protest overly strict USA Track and Field regulations; Enes Kanter who is a critic of the corruption of Turkish President Erdogan; Maya Moore who is reforming the American Justice system; Anthony Gonzalez who was one of 10 House Republican to vote for impeachment; and the many, many current NBA/NFL players who have spoken out against police brutality including Lebron James, Chris Paul, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jaylen Brown, Sterling Brown, Michael Jordan, the Milwaukee Bucks, and the Baltimore Ravens organization among others. This article, “Athletes and activism: The long, defiant history of sports’ protests” at the Undefeated has further examples. Just recently, Mathew Stafford wrote a fantastic article in the Player’s Tribune titled “We Can’t Just Stick to Football” and I highly recommend it.

But now, let’s talk about Colin Kaepernick and Daryl Morey.

First, on Kaepernick. Far from being insolent, he consulted with former Green Beret Nate Boyer who suggested that Kaepernick kneel instead of sitting on the bench: “Taking a knee, honestly, is a sign of respect. People take a knee to pray. We would take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave. I saw that image, while still getting his point across, much more respectful.”

And not only should Kaepernick’s actions be considered patriotic, but he is also right about his underlying cause as well. Radley Balko has amassed study after study showing that our criminal justice system has a racial bias. And if you just search ‘police abuse’ at Reason you will find article after article highlighting egregious examples of police brutality and possible reforms.

And even though the murder of George Floyd should have raised awareness from police officers, there’s still police abuse even today. On August 15, a Keller police officer used pepper spray on a father who was filming the arrest of his son, and then refused to give him water for over 15 minutes even though he was choking. While the City of Keller ultimately agreed to pay him $200,000 after being sued, their initial reaction was simply to demote one of the two officers.

And while I agree with Kmele Foster that the BLM movement could do more to highlight the ways that police violence affects everyone, this should be considered more a disagreement in persuasion techniques rather than whether BLM is a just cause.

At this point, some people may point to Daryl Morey and complain about the hypocrisy of the NBA who will print “Black Lives Matter” on NBA courts while not really defending Morey’s right to tweet about China’s crackdown of Hong Kong. And guess what—it is hypocritical. Thankfully, Morey has a job with the 76’ers, so he at least wasn’t blackballed by the league. But as Ben Thompson notes, it is ridiculous that China would ban the Rockets because of one tweet, especially considering that Twitter itself is banned in China. But this issue of expanding China influence is not going away—it seems clear that Apple TV and Disney Plus also self-censor with respect to China. And relatedly, not a single streaming service picked up “The Dissident” about the Saudi Arabian assassination of journalist Jamal Kashoggi—even though the director Bryan Fogel won an academy award with “Icarus” about Russian state-sponsored doping at the Olympics.

Sports is more than just a game. Not everyone has to care about every sport, but sports matter. And sports, like society, is far from perfect. But everyone, athletes included, can play a role in fulfilling the promise of liberty and justice for all.

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