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Saturday, November 12, 2016
 
A post-election thought on athlete speech

This has been a significant year for athlete speech--Colin Kaepernick (joined by several other players) and national-anthem protests, the opening speech by four NBA stars (LeBron, Carmelo, Wade, and Chris Paul) at the ESPY Awards, protests against police violence by several WNBA teams, and everyone taking sides in the presidential election. It is ironic that this occurs in the year Muhammad Ali, one of the most significant activist athletes, passed away.

But reactions to the election results highlight an important qualifier to discussion of speech within sports--different sports feature and express very different political attitudes and ideas. When we think of athlete speech, we must parse it by sport and even role within the sport.

Consider recent comments by coaches in different sports about the election. Two NFL coaches--Bill Belichick of the Patriots and Rex Ryan of the Bills--were high-profile Trump supporters; Trump read a letter of support from Belichick at one of his final rallies on Monday. Meanwhile, three NBA coaches--Stan Van Gundy of the Pistons, Steve Kerr of the Warriors, and Gregg Popovich of the Spurs--reacted angrily to Trump's election. Kerr spoke about the difficulty of talking to his daughters and facing his players in the wake of the misogyny and racism of the campaign. Popovich, a thoughtful and well-read guy, went with empathy--"I'm a rich white guy, and I'm sick to my stomach thinking about it. I can't imagine being a Muslim right now, or a woman, or an African American, a Hispanic, a handicapped person"--and history, stating he feared we have become Rome.

The difference is explicable. The NBA is a "player's league" and is overwhelmingly African-American, so it makes sense that coaches would be more sympathetic to the targets of Trump's rhetorical ire. Meanwhile, football coaches all fancy themselves as George Patton, so their affinity for the authoritarian Trump is understandable.

Along the same lines, there was discussion earlier this fall about the absence of anthem protests in Major League Baseball. Adam Jones of the Orioles explained that baseball is a white sport, with fewer African-American players (8.3 % of players) who are easily replaceable and thus less willing to put themselves in position to get kicked out of the game by taking unpopular stands, especially within the game.





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