I appreciate the need for distraction, but this won’t be a sports column today.
Something unthinkable happened last week, so I’m going to think about it. I’m going to ask you to do the same.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably a sports fan, and that’s great, because it means we have something in common. Over the next weeks and months, you’re going to hear how that means we should come together, forget politics and unite over sports. It’s tempting to do that — to ignore the most raw, visceral emotions we’ve felt through this election cycle — and instead high-five over touchdowns.
I am begging you to reject that opportunity.
If you are a mourner, and you mourn through sports, by all means, mourn. If you are a worrier, and sports calm you, by all means, watch. No one is saying you shouldn’t still enjoy them. But to treat sports as an escape from politics is a dangerous proposition.
The truth is that sports can’t be separated from politics. Politics are everywhere in sports, from the power dynamics between athletes and owners and leagues, to the statements we make in the different ways we praise athletes of different races and genders. If we have willfully ignored that, it’s on us to correct it right now.
Sports fans have sports friends, which gives us the perfect chance to start the dialogues that lead to change. A lot of what I know about social justice comes from a mentor I had at a sports writing internship. After work (and sometimes during), we would talk about the politics of sports. Our friendship changed the ways I think about the names “Redskins” and “Indians,” the ways I watch and praise female athletes and my fundamental approach to covering sports.
They were formative conversations, ones that changed how I see the world — even outside of sports. Currently, that friend is out of sports writing. He was never afraid to speak out against injustice, and when he did, the common response from fans was to tell him to stick to sports. He didn’t, and I want to follow that lead.
I’m still going to cover sports, and I’m still going to give it my all. But I’m also not going to be shy about writing about the politics inherent to the games we love.
When athletes kneel during the national anthem, they are trying to tell us something. When they speak out about not having rights to their own brands despite driving multi-million dollar industries, they are trying to tell us something. So who the hell are we to tell them we don’t want to hear it?
The athletes we cheer for don’t get to escape those realities. It’s entirely unfair to use them so that we can.
I suspect this column will be unpopular for the same reason so many like it are. Sports are comfortable because we consume them in our spaces, on our terms. That’s why, when athletes speak out, those opposed to their beliefs try to quiet them. We don’t tend to like the political battleground invading our place of refuge.
I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but I’ve had alarms ringing nonstop in my head for the last week. I’m a straight white man, so I’m writing this from a place of immense privilege, but I am petrified at what is to come. I adore writing about sports, but every time I’ve tried since Tuesday, it feels hollow. It is hollow.
Lives changed last week, and yet there I was on Saturday night, frantically writing about how the Michigan football team could move on from a loss on a last-second field goal. That is not the kind of moving on I wanted to be thinking about.
The fact of the matter is that politics aren’t going away. Now, more than ever, we as a society have to be attentive to politics at all times, even in seemingly non-political arenas. They are a taboo topic that we’re taught to avoid, but it’s time to break that trend. Ignorance has consequences. We can either have the unpleasant talks now, or we can realize what we missed later.
It’s tempting to stick to sports. But it’s imperative that we don’t.
Max Bultman can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @m_bultman. Please @ him.