With messaging on racism, sports joins the polarization of our lives

The National Football League season has started and, to show how woke the league is, it provided all sorts of messages about racism in America, displayed all over the fields.

In the end zones, for example, in big print for the whole world to see, were messages that said “End racism” and “It takes all of us.” The NFL also allowed similar messages to be worn on players’ helmets and as patches on team caps.

During pre-game warm-ups, some players wore t-shirts proclaiming that “Injustice against one of us is injustice against all of us” on the front and “End racism” on the back. And, during the actual games, players could choose either the name of a victim or one of four pre-approved phrases from the league to display on their helmets or caps: “Stop hate,” “It takes all of us,” “End racism” or “Black Lives Matter.” Coaches and on-field officials were permitted to wear the same messages on their caps.

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Predictably, perhaps, not all fans appreciated the messaging. Boos could be heard at the beginning of last Thursday night’s season-opener. Meanwhile, on the other ends of the anger spectrum, the two sportscasters for the game, Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels, were criticized as being, respectively, dismissive or unsupportive of the league’s anti-racism messaging by saying the wrong thing or nothing; Collinsworth also was criticized by the opposing side for saying anything supportive of it. 

Sometimes, you can’t win no matter what you do.

In addition to writing about politics and the media, I’m also a correspondent on an HBO program called “Real Sports,” which is not your typical sports show. We don’t do stories about who’s a better quarterback or who’s a better shortstop. We don’t give scores of games. We’re like “60 Minutes” — we do a lot of investigative reporting. We delve into the stories that go to the intersection of sports and race, for example. And, every December, we have a roundtable discussion about the big issues of the year. 

Last year the subject of athletes and activism came up — about NFL players, for example, taking a knee before a football game, about athletes openly expressing their views on subjects important to them. At the time, I said that, generally speaking, sports should be a refuge from the daily barrage of politics. Sports, I said, is — or should be — an escape from the nonstop polarization in our daily lives.

Not everyone agreed. A colleague replied that, for Black athletes, taking a knee or raising a clenched fist is an act of patriotism.

It’s a safe bet that, this December, we’ll be talking again about athletes and civil rights, about boycotts, and what we think of all that.

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Here’s what I’ll say: As long as the league and team management are okay with it, athletes have every right to protest. They have every right to take a knee before a football game. They’re free to talk about racism in America, and they’re even free to boycott games to make a point, if that’s what they want to do.

But players aren’t the only ones with rights. Fans have rights, too. They have the right to say, “I didn’t tune into this game to watch a protest demonstration.” They’re free to say, “I’m not tuning in to hear about ‘system racism.’”

They may not want to watch NBA players wearing only league-approved slogans on their uniforms. “Black Lives Matter” is one such approved slogan — but “Blue Lives Matter,” to honor police officers, is not. Neither is “All Lives Matter.”

Athletes want to lecture us — and that’s their right. But, as I say, fans have rights, too. 

A few days ago, I tuned into a hockey playoff game and, before the game started, there was a ceremony that featured a player who said: “Racism is everywhere.”

I don’t believe racism is everywhere. I don’t believe it’s systemic. I don’t believe it’s in the DNA of our country. And I didn’t tune into the game to get a lecture about how racist America is.

So I changed the channel.

We Americans love our sports, and so it’s possible that we’ll tolerate the lectures on race just to watch the game. But even if we do, sports won’t be that refuge, that place where we come to get away from polarization. It no longer will be an oasis of sorts.    

It will be just one more place that adds to the country’s polarization.

And, as a fan, that’s not something I look forward to.

Bernard Goldberg, an Emmy and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University award-winning writer and journalist, is a correspondent with HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.” He previously worked as a reporter for CBS News and as an analyst for Fox News. He is the author of five books and publishes exclusive weekly columns, audio commentaries and Q&As on his Patreon page. Follow him on Twitter @BernardGoldberg.