by Patrick Gustavson
“Keep politics out of sports:” a phrase so often uttered by sports fans in the United States.
But for Dave Zirin, the current editor of The Nation and the host of the “Edge of Sports” podcast, the mixing of the two has helped him make a living. And, according to Zirin, sports and politics have always mixed.
“I would say that sports are political, whether we choose them to be or not. There’s an old expression that you don’t have to believe in gravity to fall out of an airplane. And sports are political, so what I try to do is illuminate that and make these political connections and try to point out what’s already there,” Zirin said.
Zirin stated he believed it started as early as the 1968 Summer Olympics when runners Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the National Anthem at the podium ceremony in an effort to protest racial segregation in the U.S.
The issue was brought back into the limelight in the 1990s when NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to leave the locker room for the National Anthem, once again citing the treatment of colored people in the U.S.
However, what makes the issue as relevant as it is today is the protests sweeping the National Football League, which started when Colin Kaepernick, then of the San Francisco 49ers, sat for the National Anthem, citing racial injustice and police brutality as his reasons.
“This is the bedrock of what makes free speech matter,” Zirin said. “He was trying to bring this discussion into spaces where it was not happening. He imposed that discussion on people and made them uncomfortable. And his courage was contagious.”
However, there was a mixed response to his protest.
“There has been a shocking response to their effort to exercise their First Amendment rights, an incursion on their First Amendment rights, to chill that speech,” Zirin said. “And that incursion has been led by NFL owners themselves, the President of the United States, by the police and by the deification of the armed forces in this country.”
President Donald Trump, who “poured gasoline all over the fire” by calling the protesting players “sons of bitches,” is among the many attempting to shift the narratives of the protests in an effort to make it about disrespecting the military and country rather than racial injustice.
“Since Donald Trump’s Huntsville, Alabama speech, more people identify that the protests are about police brutality and racial justice than before. But knowing what it’s about doesn’t mean being for it,” Zirin said. “I am very hopeful that the message will re-center around that because the people fighting are fighting to re-center it and people are hearing that.”
However, Zirin said he believed Trump is not the biggest threat to the free speech of these players, but rather the deification of the military is, pointing out that the tradition of players standing for the National Anthem goes back only to 2009, or, as he put it, “the third Fast and Furious movie.”
It is an agreement between the NFL and the Department of Defense that initiated this “tradition.” Zirin pointed to the recent celebration of Veteran’s Day. “Patriotism was for sale,” he said. He also referred to Martin Luther King’s three evils, which includes militarism and the NFL.
For both this specific issue, as well as the mixing of political sports, Zirin said he felt there is no end in sight, saying “I think these ripples last forever.”
As for Colin Kaepernick, Zirin believed he will be looked upon fondly, saying that “NFL owners wanted Colin Kaepernick to be a warning shot, a ghost story, a cautionary tale. But instead of becoming a ghost story, he became a martyr.”
“If history will be a guide to us, he [Kaepernick] will always have his haters but he will be viewed as a hero because he sacrificed and stood up for what he believes in, and people who do that tend to be looked upon fondly by history,” Zirin continued. “And as Dr. King said, ‘the art of history bends towards justice.’”