It's said often that sports is the one thing that can bring Americans together.
But what, exactly, are we gathering around?
In the past several days, the toxicity of sports has been laid bare. It hasn't been the occasional drip-drip of bad behavior or reporting of scandals we usually see. Over the past week or so it has been a tsunami, day after day of headlines involving athletes, administrators and leagues, ranging from insulting to vile to dangerous.
Is this who we really are? Is this what we support and celebrate, devote our time to, spend our money on, invest our emotions in?
This is what binds us?
Several days ago in western Pennsylvania, high schoolers at an ice hockey game taunted a female goalie with sexually-explicit chants that left her in tears. The game wasn't stopped, parents didn't silence them, facility security didn't step in. Coaches meekly pointed to "safe sport" training they've received, which is rendered useless if it's not put into practice.
On Monday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly offered nothing but obfuscation, callousness, half-truths and lies as they explained away the gross mishandling of the alleged 2011 sexual assault of then-Chicago Blackhawks prospect Kyle Beach by team video coordinator Brad Aldrich.
Early Tuesday morning, police said Henry Ruggs III, a 2020 NFL first-round draft pick, killed a 23-year-old woman and her dog when he slammed into her in Las Vegas. Ruggs' blood-alcohol level, measured two hours after the crash, was .161, over twice the legal limit in Nevada, and officials estimate he was going 156 mph moments before the wreck. The Raiders — the same team whose head coach resigned just a few weeks ago after a trove of racist, misogynist, anti-gay emails he'd written came to light — released him later that day.
On Tuesday night, the Atlanta Braves won the World Series with many of their supporters still staunchly defending the "tomahawk chop" done by fans, a patently racist gesture which further denigrates Indigenous Americans, as if having their ancestral lands stolen, being killed by the government and waging a constant battle for basic respect and resources isn't enough of a fight for Natives. When asked about it at the start of the series, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said baseball tries to be "apolitical," which isn't just disingenuous as this is a matter of human rights, but also not true, since MLB has its own political action committee that regularly donates money to politicians.
Thursday, ESPN reporter Baxter Holmes published a story in which he spoke to 70 current and former employees of the Phoenix Suns detailing alleged toxic environment within the franchise, led by longtime owner Robert Sarver. Among the laundry list of claims: Sarver repeatedly used the N-word, told employees about his wife performing oral sex on him, and used language like, "Do I own you? Are you one of mine?" when speaking to people in team offices. Employees stopped telling in-house human resources about the myriad incidents of alleged mistreatment because they believed they'd face retaliation or let go from their job.
Reports on Friday said the NFL flat-out ignored the deadline it was given by the House Oversight Committee to submit documents pertaining to the investigation into what a league investigation found to be a the toxic environment in the Washington Football Team offices. Nothing says transparency like an investigation with no written report and giving a middle finger to the U.S. House of Representatives.
And the cherry on top came in the form of Aaron Rodgers. The Green Bay Packers quarterback has long comported himself like he is the smartest person in the room, believing himself so above reproach that he bristles at the idea of being criticized.
That arrogance led him to deliberately deceive the public about his COVID-19 vaccination status, saying during training camp he was "immunized," and doing in-person weekly media availabilities, indoors and unmasked, to keep up that appearance.
He gambled that he'd get through the season without anyone knowing. He crapped out Wednesday, testing positive for COVID, meaning he will definitely miss one game and possibly two for a team in the thick of the NFC race for the No. 1 seed. For all the criticism Kirk Cousins and Cole Beasley have gotten for refusing to get the COVID vaccine, at least they were honest about it.
Then on Friday Rodgers went to his personal safe space, "The Pat McAfee Show" to explain his "immunized" comment, along with other topics that might as well have come across from the untethered corners of Facebook. Or Meta. Whatever it's called these days.
Rodgers claimed he's allergic to one of the ingredients in the mRNA vaccines, said he was concerned about sterility, and said he's been taking advice from his "good friend" podcaster Joe Rogan. Data shows it's actually men who get COVID who run the risk of hurting their sterility; and Rogan has pushed listeners to use ivermectin, which is not an FDA-approved treatment for the virus.
One of the league's most recognizable players said he "did his own research" into vaccines, which is good news for everyone who thinks they're a few Google searches away from becoming an MVP quarterback. It stands to reason that if Rodgers can spend some time online and know more than thousands of scientists across the world, you can spend a few hours on YouTube and start playing better than him, right?
He evoked Martin Luther King Jr., completely misquoting the slain civil rights icon, which is highly insulting but not surprising as it has long been another tool in the kit of the faux-pressed to tailor MLK's words to suit their own misdeeds.
"The great MLK said, 'You have a moral obligation to object to unjust rules and rules that make no sense,'" Rodgers said.
King said no such thing. In his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," the text that is so conveniently forgotten in some circles speak of King (in fact, these people generally seem to know just one line, about color of skin and content of character, and that's misused too), he wrote in part, "One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws." He was talking specifically about government laws that forced racial segregation.
Even with his nonsensical butchering of King, perhaps nothing in his rambling appearance with McAfee showed more condescension than Rodgers' reason for not wearing a mask while meeting with media. He told McAfee, "I have followed every single protocol to a T, except the one that makes absolutely no sense to me."
So you didn't follow every single protocol, Aaron. The protocols aren't a buffet and you get to pick and choose the ones you want to follow. As an NFL player and dues-paying member of the NFL Players Association, you must abide the rules that were set forth and agreed upon by the league and union leadership. The media covering the team are all vaccinated, as required, and wearing masks indoors, as required. They are following the rules set forth. You did not.
These are the leagues, the teams, the players that are supposed to bring us together? Is this who we really are? It doesn't say much about us if we keep blindly gathering behind entities like these.