By Andrew McGregor
“One lesson to be learned in reaching an age where you are both a viable politician and a washed-up lineman is that past glories are not negotiable in the open market,” then Vice-President Gerald Ford wrote in Sports Illustrated in July 1974. “When you stop winning they not only start booing, they start forgetting.” Amidst the Watergate crisis that would elevate him to president a month later, Ford shared his reflections on his own athletic career as well as his opinions on the current state of the sports world. He offered his thoughts on the contentious AAU and NCAA battles, the emergence of free agency and player-owner disputes, and the importance of sports to civic and political life. Ford concluded his article on a positive, optimistic note, “I think this, too: that our better athletes today, despite the times and all the terrible crises, are really the vanguard of our young leadership.”
Speaking on international terms, Ford saw athletics as “an extraordinarily swift avenue of communication.” Success in sports, he argued, were a way to improve national morale, and demonstrate a nation’s good health. “From a purely political viewpoint, I don’t know of anything more beneficial in diplomacy and prestige. I don’t think we really want to be booed or forgotten.”
Utilizing Ford’s framework, the sports world says a lot about the health of a country. Athletes represent an emerging generation of leaders, and team success underscores our power on the world stage. Sports offer a lens to explore our society. In this post I want to ponder what the sports world and its leaders say about America in 2017. Does it reflect a healthy democratic society? This is of course a difficult question to answer, and one rooted in our own political leanings. I hope to navigate this tumultuous terrain by highlighting major sports stories from the past two months to unearth common threads that might offer us some insight into the current and future health of our country.
So what have sports leaders been saying?
John Elway and Brian Cashman have both been in the news recently talking about political issues. Elway penned a recommendation letter for conservative Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. Kavitha Davidson of espnW analyzed Elway’s actions in comparison to activist athletes, like Colin Kaepernick, who have been told to “stick to sports.” She highlights the hypocrisy of how he’s treated and hints at what they reveal about us.
If Elway gets a pass, it’s because he tends to garner more respect — because he’s a Hall of Famer, because he’s an executive, because he’s white or some combination thereof. Of course, those notions of the value of labor vs. management also tend to align with particular sides of the political spectrum, so it makes sense that those who favor management would be more sympathetic to Elway’s world view.
Cashman on the other hand offered his advice via an awkward analogy to athletes considering taking political stands.
The higher on the tree the monkey climbs, the more you see of his ass. So if you’re going to choose to climb that tree, you’re putting your ass out there. So I think you just educate everyone on dealing with the media. And you’re educated to know the waters you’re choosing to swim in. It doesn’t mean you have the ‘Don’t swim’ sign. It just means, ‘Caution, no lifeguard.’
This awkward analogy is loaded with issues that hint at the views of baseball executives more broadly. Indeed, if we unpack the statement we can get to the heart of Cashman’s warning. Showing your ass suggest that people (he) will judge you. No lifeguard means that he doesn’t have your back. And his use of a monkey and swimming analogy has deep racial connotations. It seems like he is calling someone out, and perhaps, also reminding players of “their place.” MLB is 60% white, 30% Hispanic, 9% Black, and 2% Asian. It’s a sport where white folks have power and numbers, which can be intimidating. It’s also the most immigrant heavy of the major sports. So there is certainly some racial subtext to Cashman’s analogies.
There has also been discussion about a rumored collusion against Colin Kaepernick by the NFL. Goodell and other coaches and GMs in the NFL have cautioned that we must give it time. San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan cites a difference in offensive systems and skillsets for the team’s lack of interest. The New York Daily News reported that several coaches and GMs felt similarly. A few believed that he would eventually get a job, and say that it is too early to say that the league is “blackballing” him.
There is now a laundry list of prominent coaches, mostly from the sport of basketball given the time of year, who have taken subtle and not so subtle jabs at President Trump. I wrote earlier this year about Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr. While they top the list of outspoken coaches, others have joined in. Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams have also recently commented on his tweeting. Both also spoke out against North Carolina’s controversial House Bill 2 that led the NCAA to remove championships from the state.
Jim Harbaugh commented on Trump’s budget, opposing his cut to the Legal Services Corp. Harbaugh has also offered support for Kaepernick, suggesting that he will eventually find and job and achieve success. His brother, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, agreed.
We’ve been very clear over the years, guys speak their mind in Baltimore….It’s not going to impact how somebody plays. I’m not going to play better or worse because this person believes this or that. We can certainly disagree with anything, a political opinion, or how a guy wears his socks or whatever. It’s not going to impact how I perform but we’re allowed to have that conversation and that’s what America is.
Frank Martin has also spoken out against the Confederate Flag, which protesters flew outside of NCAA tournament games played in Greenville, SC this month, and talked candidly about his family’s mixed-race heritage.
There are things out there that I don’t like. But I can’t force people to do what I want them to do. All I know is this unbelievable university and state has taken in a son of Cuban immigrants that’s married to a Jamaican woman, has mixed kids, and they’ve treated me like I’m one of their own from Day 1.
Notably absent are coaches who have taken open conservative stances.
Last fall the sports world witnessed a revival of athlete activism. Colin Kaepernick, Megan Rapinoe, and a handful of other college and professional athletes took political stands. Since the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States two months ago, that has continued. At least six members of the New England Patriots say they will refuse to attend the customary visit to the White House by championship teams. Similarly, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler spoke out against Trump’s travel ban and shared how it personally affect him and his family. Los Angeles Dodger Brandon Morrow also Tweeted his displeasure for the new president’s selection of Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
During the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the University of Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig received a great deal of attention for their activism. Hayes has taken several different positions, including supporting Black Lives Matter and joining an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA. He has also spoken openly on while he feels compelled to make public stands.
Basketball is a small part of our lives and we can use it as a vehicle to go through our life and make it a better place….You have a platform. You have a stage. You have a voice. You have the ability to change a lot of lives or bring change to a lot of situations in life based on your voice…
Similarly, Koenig has shared his experiences as a Native American athlete and role model as well as his opposition to the North Dakota Access Pipeline.
In contrast, Ian Kinsler offered an alternative perspective. During the World Baseball Classic, Kinsler suggested that American born white players played the game “the right way.”
I hope kids watching the WBC can watch the way we play the game and appreciate the way we play the game as opposed to the way Puerto Rico plays or the Dominican plays…That’s not taking anything away from them. That just wasn’t the way we were raised. They were raised differently and to show emotion and passion when you play. We do show emotion; we do show passion. But we just do it in a different way.
This statement recalls discussions about the unwritten rules of decorum and behavior in baseball, especially in regard to celebration. Given the political climate and the emergence of a white-nationalist so called “alt-right,” it also connects back to Cashman’s statement and its immigrant subtext further reflecting the views of many within the sport.
International Success and Prestige
Besides being inspired by the words of leaders, Ford took heart in the success of American teams in international competition. Winning mattered, he believed, and the U.S. national teams communicated our strength. In 2017, the United States offers a checkered portrait of our country. Team USA won their first World Baseball Classic title over American colonial possession Puerto Rico. The event was a remarkable success in terms of television viewership and merchandizing.
Yet, this spring the U.S. Women’s Hockey team engaged in a two-week boycott that could have potentially derailed its involvement in the world championships, which begins tomorrow. The contentious fight was highly publicized. The New York Times reported:
The women’s hockey players received support over that period from a wide range of professional athletes and players’ unions — from not only the National Women’s Hockey League but also the N.H.L., the N.B.A., the W.N.B.A., the N.F.L., Major League Baseball and the United States women’s soccer team. Twenty United States senators wrote a letter to U.S.A. Hockey supporting the players.
The conflict highlighted inequality in women’s sports, and possibly undermined the U.S.’s prestige in the world. Similarly, scholars and journalists have speculated about the potential impact of Trump’s travel ban on U.S. bids to host international mega events, such as the World Cup and Olympics.
This brief survey of news stories and quotes from sports figures is far from complete, and my analysis here is shallow and primitive. I hope that this exercise, however, helps us think through sport in the era of Trump. What does this all say about American society? What would Ford think? Our answer to these questions likely reflect how we feel about Trump and his policies. To me, these major sports stories and quotes suggest that in our current political moment athletes are continuing to be leaders. As Ford suggested, they reflect “the vanguard of our young leadership” and an optimistic future for our country.
Yet, the contentious USA hockey fight, the lukewarm support from some general managers, and the damage current politics may cause in our ability to host international events, demonstrate the seriousness of the current moment. They underscore longstanding power dynamics centered on race, gender, and labor that continue to manifest themselves, and have seized on the rhetoric of the election. In this regard, American prestige — one of the things Ford thought international sport helped promote — appears threatened. These are things we maybe did not need the sports world to tell us. They are present in many other places of society and in other stories in the news, but, perhaps, the presence of this conflict and activism in sports points to the widespread anxiety of Americans of all political stripes. While many point to sports as a place to escape their daily reality and avoid politics, in 2017 there is no escaping politics in the sports world.
Just this week, Trump declined to throw out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals’ Opening Day. After the defeat of healthcare reform and the travel ban, perhaps the president saw the losses as indication that he might be booed. Ford, after all, said that when you stop winning they start booing.
Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University, where he teaches courses in history and African American studies. He is also the founder and co-editor of this blog. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @admcgregor85.
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