The Trouble with Sticking to Sports

Two events this week have me writing this, which might just be a vain attempt to spew pseudo-intellectual nonsense onto the internet, at which point it will be immediately disregarded or, potentially even worse, misinterpreted. Still, I think given the way this broad cloud of discourse tends to devolve into chaotic incoherence it might be worth trying to contribute to some kind of heightened standard of what we talk about when we talk about sports. There’s likely going to be some readers of this post, either in the comments or on social media, who will disagree or have certain unfortunate reactions, but the that’s a risk I’m willing to take if it brings about more fruitful conversations or sparks new developments in the way we discuss sports, particularly on the internet.

The first event I’m referring to is the controversy arising out of Kurt Suzuki, a member of the Washington Nationals team that just won the World Series, wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat and warmly embracing Donald Trump during his team’s visit to the White House, and then complaining that others “made sports political.” This is just the most recent flareup in what has been an ongoing debate since the 2016 election regarding the political ethics of attending a White House reception as a member of a championship-winning sports team (although it is worth noting that in 2012 Tim Thomas declined to meet President Obama over what might be characterized as his broadly libertarian politics). It’s a series of controversies that, now entered into the public conversation over sports and politics, are unlikely to go away any time soon, I would imagine.

The other major battle occurring on the grounds situated between sports and politics, which you may or may not be finding out about for the first time right now, was that over Deadspin’s political stances. There’s an even bigger story here than the one that I’m going to narrate, but suffice to say that it involves politically-minded writers coming into conflict with ownership over their views and the expression thereof. This too, is not such a new conflict, and again, in my estimation is one that isn’t likely to resolve itself any time soon.

At the root of these firestorms, and really at the root of any debate involving the intersection between sports and politics, is the phrase “stick to sports.” Often used as a retort to sportswriters who begin to delve into matters of public concern, it’s become even more common now that anyone and everyone can comment on the day-to-day of any sporting and/or news event at all. If you or anyone you know has ever noted an intersection between sports and politics, you’ve likely heard this phrase.

I’m not here to dissect the deployment of these words, or what people really mean when they say them. Maybe that’s ascribing too much good faith to this conversation, or me hiding away from getting my hands dirty and entering the arena fully myself, but I think there’s a bigger picture lost in all of these conflicts. A common retort when athletes voice political opinions is that they have freedom of speech, especially when those political opinions seem to be called into critique by whatever journalist (or, as noted above, whatever person) points them out. This is an especially pernicious reply in its depth, or lack thereof.

Freedom of speech is a rich and voluminous area of both individual and social values, law, and philosophy. To stifle a conversation on the substantive merits or flaws of something by slamming a door labeled “freedom of speech” seems strange, but there’s something even more troubling there. It’s that we often forgetĀ why we have freedom of speech and what kind of freedom stems from that purpose. Even if we really do mean it when we say “well, freedom of speech” we don’t then interrogate what that really signifies in all of its implications.

The way we tend to frame speech in these scenarios precludes robust discussion by being deceptively constrictive despite the ostensible reach of the claimed liberty to speak one’s mind. No matter what justification you use to scaffold your understanding of expression, thought, belief, or association, the house you build collapses on itself rapidly when built without the weight-bearing capacities of the foundation in mind.

I have my own views on what freedom of speech means, both as a legal construct (I’m in law school, so that’s my jumping off point), and as a broader societal aspiration. I’m not here to tell you those, because frankly I’m still sifting through these things on a daily basis, as I hope to for the rest of my life. I’m here to propose though that we start again, at least here on this website, or in our small communities of family and friends, or on social media, or wherever we might find ourselves sliding inevitably from sports into politics. I’m here to ask a few basic questions, ones worth answering before speaking, before listening, and certainly before firing back in anger ” … but freedom of speech!”

Why do we believe in the freedom of speech? What purpose or function does it serve? Why have we encoded it into our structure of government and elevated it so in our society? And how do we best serve those ideals in our discussions of sports and politics going forward? It seems to me that, one way or another, “sticking to sports” is not going to help answer any of these questions.

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  • Since you are in law school, then you have probably learned by now that ‘freedom of speech’ guaranteed by the First Amendment prohibits government from restricting speech except in fairly specific circumstances in public forums. So, private entities and individuals running sites like bloggers can impose rules restricting the type of speech allowable in their comments, and social media platforms in general can prohibit certain types of speech.

    “Stick to sports’ is often employed in forums such as BSB so that the blog doesn’t get bogged down in political discussions when hockey is the subject for which most people come to it. Now, a hockey writer writing an article who touches on politics if writing for a newspaper might get away with not offending everyone who reads the paper. But if BSB started to have political content in its articles, I imagine that many folks might stop coming to the site because the content they came for had been diluted.

    We have freedom of speech so that those in power cannot silence dissent. We have it so that we may express ourselves without fear of being silenced by those who have the power to silence us. It is freedom of speech that makes me wake up every day and count my blessings that I have lived in this country since birth.

    • Well aware that the First Amendment revolves around state action, but I’m also aware of the long tradition of free speech in socio-philosophical thought (Milton probably the starting place for the Anglo-American tradition, with all kinds of excellent thinkers sprinkled throughout beyond that).

      What I would say is that the rights enshrined in the First Amendment stem from a broader understanding of thought and expression than is able to be legally defined – it’s a process that we’re always recommitting ourselves to, except when we say things like “stick to sports.” Private power exists just as public power does, aggregate and individual power as well. My point is not one of offense or agreement, but rather that, in any kind of public discussion there’s a need for open and honest discourse, and that “stick to sports” runs contrary to that purpose despite being often deployed by the same people who fall back inelegantly on “… but freedom of speech!”

      Point well taken of course about dilution of purpose, but what I would say to that is that sports are, and have always been, inherently political, and that any attempt to pick the two apart is in vain. Rather than put a hard wall between them, we should recognize that where they even tangentially come into contact it’s best to then discuss what issues arise, with exposure to competing viewpoints hopefully having some benefit. We don’t need to pick and choose, and, in my opinion, it’s nearly impossible to do so. We wouldn’t be having this discussion at all if there were such a heavy barrier between the two subjects, after all.

  • I watch sports to escape politic nonsense. I don’t watch politic nonsense to escape sports. EVER! I appreciate your point(s) here. But back to sports.

    Now Lindgren being scratched for Staal? Sorry but I think Hajek would have made better sense. Lias didn’t have a good game the other night, but other than Fox and Kakko and Lindgren, who did? Better to scratch Lias then Haley or Smith? Understand shaking up the line up. But this to me is truly head scratching. Maybe there’s some politics of hockey going on there?

    We may see McIlrath tonight playing for Detroit..

    • So I think you bring up a solid point about entertainment and escapism. That’s certainly a big reason a lot of people (myself included, very often) watch sports, but what I would say to that, as I said above, is that it’s impossible to pick the two apart. Almost everything in entertainment implicates the different worldviews and perspectives on life that form the foundations of political opinions. Sports being no different, and having always been colored by politics, the impossibility of disentangling the two makes it essential that we do open ourselves to these kinds of conversations where relevant, rather than shying away from them.

      We’re never going to be able to separate them, so why try? Let’s have the conversation effectively and then get back to sports is what I’m saying – not either/or.

      • I hear your point. I guess what I am saying is during a Rangers game(or any other game for that matter) I don’t want to talk about Gun control or a border wall or abortion or immigration reform or social justice. The teams and players are certainly welcome to discuss whatever they want. First amendment.I get it. The broadcast goes down that road I get my clicker. Either change the channel or mute the volume. Those are my remedies. It doesn’t mean I am not interested in these issues, It means there is a time and place for everything.

        I also think everyone on a team should go to the White house for example, if the team is going. No protesting Obama or Trump. You’re part of a team. What’s the old cliche, there is no “I” in team. So be a team mate.

        No part of the first amendment that often gets over looked is …you have the right to remain silent.

        Just my views. I prefer to dilute politics out of sports as much as possible. They’ve ruined so much in our country and in the world no point in letting them ruin sports too.

  • Thank you for the article. I wish more people would realize that sports has always been political and that telling someone to “stick to sports,” is telling them to implicitly support the status quo.

  • People can understand sports and can argue for or against, but it rarely gets violent (except for Islander/Ranger arguments) . Politics on the other hand, has become a very hot button. It is much more polarizing that sports. Maybe because it actually effects us? Either way, the BSB is an escape from politics. Let’s leave it that way and put your political thoughts on to another, more politically appropriate blog.

    • I touched on the escapism point above, and think it’s maybe best to not beat a dead horse. The way I’d respond to the notion that politics is especially hot button these days is that maybe these things have become so contentious as a result of our decisions not to discuss them more fully. Rather than let wounds fester, when sports and politics overlap let’s have a discussion, address each others’ points with respect and good faith, and then call it a day. That’s it! We should think about things a bit more carefully is the bottom line, and while I appreciate your point about using sports as a diversion from difficult and stressful aspects of life (as stated above, I certainly use hockey for something similar), I’d simply say that we should dig deeper than putting those two things at opposite ends of a spectrum.

      • I hear and understand you, I just do not agree. Discussion about political issues needs to come to a point where people agree to disagree. It just does not happen enough in this current political climate. Depending on your zip code, you could be far right, middle of the road or far left. My pocket and wallet help decide my political views, and I cannot expect others to wholeheartedly share my views. Maybe they understand them, but that is rare in this political environment.

        We might as well start discussing religion, pro-creation, right to life, etc. I think there is a place for those discussions, just not here.

        • Sorry, I think maybe I wasn’t especially clear – this is of course a sports blog, and the focus should be on sports. My question to you would be this: what do we do when an athlete says or does something political? What if there’s disagreement as to whether it’s political at all? Should we stick to sports? That’s where I’d say no. I’m not stepping outside of that context to say we should talk politics at all times in all settings, because that’s a much more complicated question then, and I don’t have the time/energy/intellect to fully grapple with it.

          • For example, what if a NYR decided to go and sit on the bench during the national anthem? My views would be quite distinct if this would occur. Players will often do things that impact social and political values. It would be great to separate these actions from the game, but I would agree it is next to impossible.

          • The only reason that I advocate sticking to sports here is that in today’s hyper-partisan political involvement bringing up political issues is almost sure to devolve into ad hominem attacks on one another, destroying the pleasure of discussing sports with fellow enthusiasts.

  • I was blessed recently being able to go to Rome and take a few tours involving the history of the Colosseum. It was truly fascinating to learn about the details it took to put on the games. Putting aside the horrible things that happened in that arena it was magical to learn how the gov’t created this form of entertainment for its citizens. Being a roman meant so much, even though they were brutal and did some horrible things, the games were interesting to learn about in detail.

    I love being American, it’s one of the biggest Blessings God gave me. I love our Soldiers and could never say thanks enough to them. I was and continue to be proud when I learn about how much my country has done for people’s all over the world.

    I understand our rights, but I work in a company that would fire me for taking a knee. American sports need to make that a standard rule. That’s all I am saying about it.

    Freedom is awesome.

    I probable would not have written anything about the times on this blog – writing it sort of fuels the issue and puts us right into it instead of distancing our blog form it, staying true to blue only…

    but that’s your right, and I am thankful you have it!


    MTRGA! thats just hilarious!

  • Sports is sports, teams win and teams lose…don’t take it too seriously, have some fun.

  • Great. I have 2 Masters. Big deal. No one is stopping you from expressing your political opinions.
    However we go on to your site to read about NYR hockey.
    Personally I will reduce my viewership if your site becomes more political.
    That being said, if hockey and politics is the basis for your blog than go for it. The market will dictate if it will succeed or not. Quite simple.

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