The next time you feel compelled to tell a sportswriter to “stick to sports,” understand this:
Nothing would make us happier.
We know what we are. We cover the circus.
We watch endless practices and games with the dispassionate fascination of scientists. Afterward, we enter germ-ridden locker rooms and crowd around sweaty people who are in various states of undress to collect information they seldom want to share. We transcribe hours of interviews, mostly composed of monotonous cliches. We then strive to present accurate accounts of occurrences and try to paint portraits of the actors involved.
It is an odd vocation, but to us it brings joy, because we are a simple folk.
We eagerly anticipate opening day, not presidential elections.
We save mementos from Super Bowls and World Series, not fascist demonstrations.
If we were interested in chronicling matters of truly historic import, we would be in Afghanistan, or Syria, or Washington. We would not be at Disney World, which is, literally, where the Braves play their spring training games.
So the next time you feel like griping that politics doesn’t belong on the sports page, know that no responsible reporter in any press box ever said, “Man, I hope Kaepernick keeps kneeling” or “I hope Chris Long rips Trump again,” if only because any such protest immeasurably complicates our otherwise insulated lives. You’re talking about a group of people who struggle with the North vs. South histories of NFC divisions, much less those of the Carolinas. Introduce social activism in sports and we start scrambling.
We have to check the date and the place where John [Juan?] Carlos and Tommie [Tommy?] Smith raised their fists [Mexico City, 1968. Almost positive]. Few of us cover elite women’s soccer, so we have to recall how Megan Rapinoe [Meghan Rapinho?] spells her name, because she is a brave woman with a social conscience, not a fifth-string running back with a practice-squad future. We cannot reconstruct the time line as Muhammad Ali’s social agenda evolved, but we can recite the sites and scores of LI Super Bowls.
We acknowledge that, as sportswriters, we are better equipped to debate who should be in Cooperstown than who should be in the White House. The only WAR we’re fully qualified to discuss is Wins Above Replacement. Many of us are strongly anti-DH, but we’re not quite sure exactly what Antifa even is.
But here we are. American politics has insinuated itself into every layer of sports. When Donald Trump, both as a candidate and then as president, blasted Colin Kaepernick, nobody told him to stick to politics.
Sportswriters are not alone in their reluctance and specious qualifications as arbiters of social justice. Few athletes have the civic tool box required to represent any cause with complete eloquence. If you feel disgusted that LeBron James or Malcolm Jenkins uses his platform to speak for millions who have no voice, please realize that both would be delighted if there were not crises of hate-mongering, voter suppression, and police brutality. They wish their world was restricted to wearing garish costumes and chasing leathers balls, then selling sneakers and sports drinks and bow ties.
However, LeBron and Malcolm and Kaep, bless his confused soul, all believe the world might be better for their involvement. The latest anthem sitters, Michael Bennett and Marshawn Lynch, talented pieces in the Seahawks’ rise to prominence, might not be perfect mouthpieces for any movement — they can be aggressively vulgar — but rest assured, social activism is not their first choice as a hobby. And no, the irony is not lost on sportswriters that Lynch’s exercise in free speech as a Raider occurs even as he still refuses to speak to us.
It’s true that Bennett and Lynch are more outspoken than most other athletes, when the mood strikes them, and when they choose their audience and their cause. Long typically is even more willing to put his views on display.
A Charlottesville native who played football at Virginia, Long took to Twitter last week to express his dismay at violent protests in his generally peaceful hometown that culminated in one killing and dozens of injuries. Long also was, and is, angered that Trump acted entirely unpresidential, to the point of defending the “white supremacists” in Charlottesville.
Chris Long is 32. He is a rich, young white man with a Super Bowl ring, a high IQ, and a lovely young family. He wants to take his family to Chuck E. Cheese’s, go home and, after tuck-in time, watch Game of Thrones. He does not want to think about fallout from his standing beside Jenkins during Jenkins’ anthem protest, as Long did Thursday.
Chris Long did not wake up last Friday morning hoping that khaki-clad white nationalists would march to his alma mater that night carrying flaming tiki torches. Long didn’t rise last Saturday wishing his progressive city would become ground zero for a neo-Nazi movement.
But those things happened, and Long spoke out, because, as an American citizen, that is his right, if not his duty.
And we reporters, we wrote down what he said, and we provided accurate context and humanist nuance, because, as reporters, that is our duty. And, as American reporters, that is still our right.