With NFL protest, Americans misunderstand both sports, politics

With NFL protest, Americans misunderstand both sports, politics
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On Saturday, Sept. 23, when Alabama drubbed Vanderbilt, Iowa lost to Penn State on the last play, and the Fighting Irish beat Michigan State, I was listening to the sports section of a San Francisco TV news program. The announcer came on and said, “Now let’s talk about sports.” Then he smiled and added, “And I don’t mean politics.” The sports news was that Carmelo Anthony was signed by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

On the news side, Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors insisted he would not visit the White House, though it is unclear if the championship team had yet been invited. Winning teams did not hesitate about visiting under earlier administrations, when the invitation was more cultural than political. The big news for the moment concerned President Trump’s remarks about the patriotism of some professional athletes during the playing of the National Anthem. By Sunday, the story on every professional game was whether the athletes stood or not.

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Everyone has an opinion on this now, unfortunately, hot-button topic. Until now, virtually all present at the playing of the National Anthem stood quietly. It was a visible symbol of the standing together of all citizens no matter what their background. With Colin Kaepernick’s knee last season, and his explanation for it, sports were suddenly politicized. In his later years, Kaepernick was a rather lousy quarterback, but he gained a second wind in politics. In his telling, something was wrong with the country itself. No one could show it honor.

Off hand, I cannot imagine anything worse for professional athletics than this politicizing of the industry. Once this happens, what is displayed in sporting matches is not a game that we watch for its own sake. It is rather the fostering of a political view. Both sports and politics are then corrupted. Something similar, no doubt, had already occurred in Hollywood and higher education, in the music and entertainment industries.  

The Silicon Valley area, where the San Francisco 49ers play, is said to be populated by billionaires, while the professional sports teams that most of us watch are populated merely by millionaires. On both of these groups, the average man looks on with some perplexity if not envy. The older millionaires were mostly Republicans, but the newer billionaires are not. In both cases, we can know something of what they were and are by looking at how they make and spend their money. The same is true for the millionaire athletes.

How is it possible that a man who throws a curveball, or who is a 320 pound tackle can possibly deserve to make a couple of million dollars a year? The economist’s answer is that he provides a scarcity that someone is willing to pay for. People do complain that the stadium grounds on which these millionaires play are often provided by public funds. Half the industry is up in arms over life-time injuries that are possible in such games, especially football, so some want to close it down.

Many sports franchises are enormously successful. Fans come, even during losing seasons. They pay hundreds of dollars for a ticket to Sunday’s game. The players vie for publicity and they are often conscious of their impact. They visit the poor, make themselves models to kids. They are public figures.

Everyone knows that the day of the Superbowl is practically a national holiday, like the Melbourne Cup race in Australia. It seems that most people watch ball games because they are not political, or, at least, have not been up until now. They are watched to escape politics. They watch because a good game is worth watching for itself. There should be a wall of separation between state and sports, for the good of both. The state’s function is to ensure an arena where things that are none of its business can go on. We all know about the riots that occasionally occur throughout the world in its most widely played sport — soccer. But these are rarely political riots.

Once we are constantly confronted with current ideology in sports, whether it be about feminism, ecology, politics, or religion, the gig is up for such sports. I already notice how empty the stands are for many baseball, football, and basketball games. The cameras are careful not to notice too much. The teams that never win usually move on, or hire a new coach or change ownership.

And we cannot have a sports industry without losers. That too is part of the game. In fact, the fine art of losing is one of the best things sports can teach us. The idea of giving every little kid a trophy or medal no matter what he does is simply contrary to one of the most important things we need to learn about life, namely, as the old adage went, “You can’t win ‘em all.” Most athletes, if they are perceptive, learn this valuable lesson pretty quickly. Sixty-eight teams begin the NCAA College Basketball Tournament. Sixty-seven go home losers. Losers’ lives continue, richer perhaps than if they had won.

We undermine the real value and purpose of sports when we politicize them. Sports are often said to be a “waste of time.” That is precisely what they are. That is, they belong to that higher sphere of life that looks to what is noble, to what is worth doing for its own sake, as Aristotle would have it.

We watch a good game because it is fascinating in itself, in its inner ongoing drama. Spectators are riveted by a good game because it is a good game, almost as if to say that we look for something that takes us out of ourselves. To politicize sports, I suspect, means that we understand neither politics nor sports, an irreparable loss for both.

The Rev. James Schall, S.J., author of “A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning & Being Forgiven,” is professor emeritus at Georgetown University.