Bad news for sports fans who wish their sports would remain politics-free: the nation’s lead politician has fired off his own sports hot take, and that means “stick to sports” is dead and gone.
During a Friday night rally in Alabama, President Trump took a moment to focus on the NFL, and in just a few paragraphs obliterated whatever lines still exist between politics and sports, while managing the remarkable feat of bringing together both the NFL and the NFL Players Association to denounce his characterizations of the game.
First, Trump offered up a searing view of players who protest during the national anthem, charging that owners who observe players kneeling during the anthem ought to say, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!”
Trump went on to take credit for the NFL’s ratings decline (“the number one reason happens to be they like watching what’s happening … with yours truly”) and took issue with the increased referee presence (“They’re running the game!”). But it’s the targeting of protesters as “son of a bitches,” and the open praise for owners who would expel them from the league (“They’ll be the most popular person, for a week. They’ll be the most popular person in this country”) that raised the ire of NFL players fed up with being told they’re only valued, and only needed, for what they can produce on the field.
“Does anyone tell Trump to stick to politics, like they tell us to stick to sports?” wondered Detroit Lions tight end Eric Ebron, one of many players to speak out. NFLPA president DeMaurice Smith followed the sentiments with a statement on Saturday morning, adding, “We will never back down. We no longer can afford to stick to sports”:
“Whether or not Roger [Goodell, NFL commissioner] and the owners will speak for themselves about their views on player rights and their commitment to player safety remains to be seen,” Smith said in his Twitter statement. “This union, however, will never back down when it comes to protecting the constitutional rights of our players as citizens as well as their safety as men who compete in a game that exposes them to great risks.”
“Stick to sports” has become the convenient go-to for fans weary of politics, whether through protests or criticisms of the president, intruding on what should be a relaxing pastime. It’s an understandable view; American culture is a toxic stew right now, and sometimes you just want some relief from being told how terrible 2017 and its major figures are.
On the other hand, “stick to sports” is also a naive, shortsighted view; politics and sports have always intermingled, from the days of Jackie Robinson breaking color barriers to ever-present military family reunions to Olympic demonstrations and terrorism to political ads running between gameplay to NFL owners investing in Trump’s inauguration to, yes, the national anthem itself. Fans who want to keep sports free of politics are often merely failing to complete the full sentence: keep sports free of politics I don’t like.
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But now the president has taken a defiant, definitive side in the primary political issue threading throughout the NFL, and by doing so, has amplified both sides’ voices. He’s also come down hard against the idea of increased player safety — which, yes, comes at a cost of a few more penalty flags —a stance which demanded an NFL response. Soon after Smith’s statement, the NFL released its own, distancing itself from the president:
“The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture,” read the statement from Goodell. “There is no better example than the amazing response from our clubs and players to the terrible natural disasters we’ve experienced over the last month. Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.”
While the statement doesn’t mention Trump by name, lines like “unfortunate lack of respect” and “failure to understand” are the kinds of critiques that get under the president’s skin, and it’s likely that a counter-response, almost surely one involving CAPS LOCK, exclamation points, and a description of the NFL as “failing” will be forthcoming on Twitter from the president.
The NFL doesn’t have the luxury of “sticking to sports” anymore, not when the President of the United States is undercutting both safety goals and players’ right to their own voices. Fans upset that politics are casting a longer shadow over the sports they love can look to the field to throw blame, yes, but they should also look to the owners’ boxes, and to the Oval Office.
“Stick to sports.” It’s a quaint notion that no longer applies in an America that elected a reality-television star to the White House.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at email@example.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.