Whether you want to admit it or not, sports, particularly the NFL, plays a key component in bringing unity to the United States. Take baseball unifying the country and bringing some normalcy following the 9/11 attacks in 2001. And, of course, the narrative about the NFL protests that some players are staging during the National Anthem each game.
Our country is, arguably, more politically charge now in the year 2017 than it has been since the Civil Rights movement. On many levels, were still fighting those same fights today, but we live in a much more connected culture, where everything is available with a tap or a swipe. Left or right, conservative or liberal, our nation feels more polar every day, with people more willing to voice what jersey they rock. The idea of popularizing "Make America Great Again" hats is like a rallying cry for your favorite team. It seems like each individual has drawn a line in the sand, either for or against. It should go as no surprise that these lines have bled into sports. And there's nothing new about that. Sports and politics have had this love affair for as long as sports has been in the public conscious.
April 15th, 1947. Headlines read, "Jackie Robinson Makes MLB Debut." Five words started a national conversation. The color barrier was exactly that: a barrier. An imaginary line that cut, not just divided, the nation into two. Only, this time, it was black and white, not red and blue — as was the experience during the Civil War. Robinson's sheer defiance of playing in a white league, and (gasp) succeeding, was as much a social stance as anything from the era. For as much success as the future Hall of Famer enjoyed on the field, a large reason why the Dodgers' No. 42 is a staple of baseball is directly related to the impact his actions left on the game and the country at large.
Then, 20 years later, at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, took their shoes off atop the medal podium, raising their fists to the air as the National Anthem rang out, showing racial unity on the biggest stage in the world — and showing the lack of progress as a whole in America. It didn’t take a hashtag, or a subreddit, or millions of shares to start a movement back then. It just took two athletes who were conscious of their platform. And, with two simple actions, they simultaneously protested poverty and racial inequality. The proceeding events, the hysteria and social disruption their actions caused, froze a moment in time and turned two sprinters into icons.
From the outside, it’s hard to rationalize what athletes have to do with politics. What social responsibility do these athletes have to try and push an agenda? The answer is a withstanding none. For all intents and purposes, sports and politics shouldn’t mix. So why do they so often?
Today is a bit different. Last year, as a back-up QB for the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kapernick, a player who had fallen out of favor in Silicon Valley, took a stance. Amiss the chaos of racially charged police brutality, Kaepernick took his chance at protesting. At the time, who knows if Colin Kaepernick knew the type of polar response he’d get from the nation.
Thousands in the stadium and on the field stand for the National Anthem to commemorate all those who risk and have risked their lives for America's freedom. On the other hand, even in 2017, freedom is not created equal, or unbiased; and it's certainly not colorblind. What gets lost amongst all of this is the good that Colin Kaepernick's knee has done to begin the conversation and start movement — on a global platform. Whether for or against, black or white, red or blue, it doesn’t much matter, because it started a conversation. That’s democracy. Having the luxury to voice opinions and debate stances, that’s the great power behind those beautiful Stars and Stripes.
In a recent speech, Barack Obama made a resonating point. He asked the crowd that, if they were to be born at any given point in time, without knowing what race, gender, or sexuality they would be, what time would they choose to be born in? It’s hard to argue against today’s day and age. We’ve come a long way, and, although we can’t attribute any change directly to sports, it’s hard to deny its had an impact. Sports has brought difficult conversations into the public mainstream for a long time. It’s a love/hate relationship, and sports and politics probably won’t stop mixing anytime soon. And that is a win for us all — regardless of what proverbial political jersey you wear.
Lead image via Getty.