I’ve loved sports since before I can remember, and the one sport I’ve always loved most is soccer. 

When I was one, my parents took me to a professional photographer for family portraits. They sat me down in front of the camera for an individual shot, but I started crying as soon as they walked away. No matter what toys they tried to give me, I just wouldn’t stop.

Then my dad, who played soccer in his youth back in Ethiopia, handed me a soccer ball. It worked like a charm. From the smile spread wide across my face to the ball held softly between my hands, the photo captured the pure joy of a child falling in love. I still have it framed in my bedroom.

With the current climate surrounding sports, every time I look at it, it feels like a double-edged sword.

After last Sunday’s show of solidarity among NFL players, the president tweeted that the issue of kneeling has “nothing to do with race.” But the outrage expressed toward those who chose to take a knee showed that isn’t the case.

The people voicing their opposition on Twitter claimed that they would stop watching the NFL and listening to sports radio because, when faced with a choice between their country and their favorite sport, they chose their country automatically.

The country they are referring to — the one that frequently claims to be the greatest nation in the world — makes that case based on its position as a global bastion of democracy. The U.S. may have been founded on the ideals of liberty, equality and justice for all, but these protests highlight the fact that those ideals have remained more idealized than actualized.

A democracy requires that the human rights of all citizens are protected. When certain minority groups face systematic oppression as part of their daily life — within the realm of sports and far beyond — that simply isn’t the case.

A democracy also requires its citizens to be active participants in civic life. The argument that there should be a separation of sports and politics doesn’t fit within the fabric of our country.

Sports are a luxury for some, but they are a harsh reality for others. For those who think sports are only a product put out by a league filled to the brim with owners who have more money than they could ever need, sports are easily dispensable from their daily routine. But for those whose lives depend upon the paychecks they earn playing a game, they are worth much more than money could convey.

No one can deny that the adoration of sports has created a dangerous culture in our society. But these NFL fans have turned a blind eye to concussions, domestic abuse and sexual assault, and yet, kneeling during the national anthem is what made them give up their fanhood.

After playing organized soccer from the ages of four to nine, I transitioned to watching sports. It all began with the World Cup, a shining example of the communal power of sports. The World Cup brings athletes from across the globe together to represent their countries on the field of play, and ultimately, crowns a single country the champion of the world.

On the surface, it would seem to be a match of division waiting to be lit. But in reality, the World Cup carries a torch of unity.  

After soccer, basketball and football became my favorite sports, and I started to follow them regularly. The other two major U.S. sports, baseball and hockey, didn’t capture my interest nearly as much.

For a child growing up in the Metro Detroit area, that might seem somewhat counterintuitive. The Red Wings and Tigers were the class of the city during my youth. In 2006, the Tigers made it to the World Series for the first time since 1984, and I didn’t watch a single game. In 2008, the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup for the fourth time in 12 seasons, and I never even stepped foot inside Joe Louis Arena.  

When you’re a child, you don’t think much of it. But then you grow up and you start to see the flaws that permeate the sports landscape. You start to understand the underlying differences between the sports you love and the ones you don’t love as much.

Out of the four major leagues, the NBA and NFL are majority Black, while the MLB and NHL are majority White. I now realize that I gravitated toward the first two as a child because when I saw those players, I saw a piece of myself. That extends to their actions outside the field of play as well.

When I saw NBA players don all-black hoodies in memory of Trayvon Martin and I Can’t Breathe shirts in memory of Eric Garner, I understood that they had a personal stake in the fight for justice. When I heard the Pittsburgh Penguins announce their decision to visit the White House in commemoration of their championship, I understood that they didn’t feel the need to play a role in that fight.

Making a stand against social inequality shouldn’t be a burden left to those who face the consequences. Silence is a luxury afforded to those whose lives are not in the line of fire. Our society has tried to ignore that reality, but these times are too important to remain silent.

When I look at the picture of myself holding a soccer ball, I realize the beauty of sports that people talk about. I didn’t know anything yet about camaraderie, competition, or community — the buzzwords people often use to describe the purity of their passion. When you’re a child, you don’t need a reason; you just need a feeling.

I’ve loved sports since before I can remember, but it is growing harder to accept the realities that come with the territory.

Ashame can be reached at ashabete@umich.edu or on Twitter @betelhem_ashame.

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