It’s a demand that anyone who has ever written about sports has heard; an old refrain from readers who just want you to stay in your lane: “Stick to sports.”
Any time analysis strays from the confines of a field or locker room to, say, what one thinks of the latest U2 album (it’s bad) or our current political climate (also bad), the call comes out: “Stick to sports.” Sports, the thinking goes, are a respite: a blessed place that can remain free from the awful rhetoric and depressing news of the day. Sports are fun. Sportswriters and broadcasters, by that logic, should respect that, and keep their talking points limited to the game in front of them.
On Friday, President Donald Trump made that impossible.
During a supposed stump speech for Sen. Luther Strange of Alabama, the president sounded off on the National Football League and his many problems with it. In the speech, he questioned rules meant to protect the safety of NFL players, boasted of his friendships with NFL owners, and implored them to “get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out,” if a player protested. He added, “He's fired. He's fired.”
It’s unclear why, exactly, Trump chose to go after the NFL on Friday night. It may have been a passing thought. Or (much more likely) it was an easy way to score points with his base, which much loves the flag and football and very much does not love being forced to think about police brutality against black Americans when they crack open a beer to watch a game on Sundays.
And before I go on: Yes, I do understand the need for a respite. It’s part of why I love sports, too. The chance to shut off the ‘ol brain for a few hours and submit yourself to a (more or less) meaningless ball game is a beautiful thing.
But to deny that sports are connected to the real world is to be naive. Even ignoring every social issue that sports hit on and the sheer amount of money these leagues — both professional and “amateur” — make means that they need to be monitored, reported on, and questioned. Just because the product they put out involves a bouncing ball does not mean that these leagues aren’t powerful or that they can’t abuse that power.
But “stick to sports” isn’t ever just about that. There is something far more sinister at work in those three simple words. For some, of course, “stick to sports” is just about wanting a break from the news of the day. For others, though, that message is used to prevent athletes from speaking out and prevent journalists from pointing out what is right in front of them. Players protested, and still the call came in: “Stick to sports.”
Those three words are a powerful tool for those who want to keep the status quo. “Stick to sports” is a way to deny progress and silence voices. When protest came to the sports world, these people had a neat trick to avoid having to discuss underlying issues. They implored sportswriters and athletes to stay in their lane, and many, many sportswriters and athletes did just that.
Then Donald Trump went and picked a fight.
In doing so, he collapsed the entire argument. He forced a lot of sportswriters to unstick themselves, to put aside game analysis, and to write about the issues of NFL player safety and players protesting the killing of black Americans by the police paid to protect them. He forced a group of league owners to pick a side, at least for one Sunday. He forced a league of athletes to respond and stand with their own.
Not all of those players (and especially owners) did it for the right reasons, and there are still questions of whether they should have been protesting from the beginning. These are good and important questions.
But before Friday there was a chance this whole thing would have gone the way that some would have liked it to go. The protests would have gone on, written and talked about less and less, and then — if everything went right — forgotten about. Things would have stayed the same. Progress, through obfuscation and appeals to decorum, would have once again been denied.
On Friday, Trump threw a wrench in the whole thing. In a crass appeal to his base, he ensured that, at least for now, sports will not be stuck to.