Programming note: Tune in to "Race in America: A Candid Conversation" on Friday, July 24 on NBC Sports Bay Area after "Giants Postgame Live" and NBC Sports California after "A's Postgame Live."
Even with much of the world energized in pursuit of the noblest of causes, they’re still out there lurking behind keyboards issuing demands, banging out those strident old phrases that reveal superficiality.
Stick to sports.
Keep politics out sports.
Will there ever come a time when we bury such phrases?
“No,” said Howard Bryant, the author and ESPN senior writer who was a panelist on Episode 11 of “Race in America: A Candid Conversation,” which airs Friday on NBC Sports Bay Area after "Giants Postgame Live" and on NBC Sports California after "A's Postgame Live."
“Only time I ever hear that is when the person doesn’t agree with you,” said the other panelist, Dontrelle Willis, the two-time All-Star left-hander and now an analyst on NBC Sports California.
To ignore the fact that politics and sports have been intertwined from the moment they met is criminally inattentive. We’ve occasionally had politics without sports, but we’ve never had sports without politics.
“The (idea of) stick to sports, it’s never existed in the first place for black athletes. They’ve never been able to stick to sports. They’ve never wanted to,” said Bryant, who has written extensively on the intersections of sports, race and politics. “Black players got involved in politics because the white owners asked them to, whether we’re talking about (Jesse Owens after) the 1936 Olympics or Jackie Robinson, or any of it.
“At some point, the players were asked to speak up, like Joe Louis in World War II. They were the ones who are asked to speak. And then it changed when you didn't hear what else Jackie Robinson and company had to say. Once the subject changed, then it becomes political.”
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When Major League Baseball opened its season this week, there were numerous displays, during the national anthem, meant to draw attention to the inequality that has plagued America for four centuries. Managers knelt. Coaches knelt. Players knelt. In some cases, entire teams knelt.
The ensuing polarization that lit up social media was downright blinding, with some expressing support for a worthy cause and others showing disgust with peaceful, solemn protests. Some are vowing to boycott sports.
Such venom. Because some high-profile sports figures -- let’s remember they’re men before ballplayers, much less objects of affection or derision -- behind the idea of a friendlier and fairer America.
“It’s shocking to me, it's upsetting to me,” Willis said. “It's insulting, because now you're telling a person, ‘You're not smart enough to know what's going on right now. You're not smart enough to know ... ’ "
Here is where Bryant interrupted: “You’re telling them, ‘You can’t be a citizen.’ ”
Willis explained what it means to have a father serve in the military, fighting for the freedom of all, only to have a few folks pushing for silence.
“We’ve given everything to this country, not only in sports but in politics, everything. We’ve given everything to this country,” he said. “How dare you tell me that I can't speak up, especially if I’m educated on that, or if I want to be educated on that?”
Sports figures, like most of society, are becoming more enlightened in the wake of seeing video of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, die under the knee of a white police officer; seeing video of another unarmed Black man, Ahmaud Arbery, shot and killed by white vigilantes; and discovering that a Black woman, Breonna Taylor, was shot eight times by group of white police officers who busted into her home apparently seeking someone else.
This bothers some people much more than others.
“The entire concept of kneeling is an interesting one because the gesture itself says something to people, and it changes the opportunity to talk because now you bring emotion into it,” Bryant said, pointing out that even some who might abhor race-based violence might be bothered by witnessing those who protest.
“The real question is, ‘Is this the end of the 9/11 era,’ where you have politics on one side, with all the American flags and the militarism and the police. And then, on the other hand, you've got this other big question of the players talking about their voice.
"Is it the end of ‘stick to sports?’ Absolutely not, because the NFL just announced the other day that they're going to allow decals of people affected by police brutality to appear on uniforms.”
Though the keyboards won’t cool anytime soon, there also is no sign of slowing the movement to lift America closer to its figurative ceiling. A movement sports finally seems ready to join.