Court Politics

Several weeks ago, the Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA boycotted their scheduled first-round playoff game versus the Orlando Magic after a police officer shot an African American man seven times in the back. The police were on the scene after having been called by a woman who accused the man of sexually assaulting her and violating a restraining order. Setting aside the specifics of the incident, which are still murky, the NBA and its players pondered canceling the remainder of their already abbreviated playoffs in their continuing efforts to draw attention to the widely held view that African Americans are frequently the targets of police harassment and brutality. Ultimately cooler heads and accountants prevailed, and the playoffs are now continuing. However, the league is battling declining television ratings and revenue losses from having no fans in the stands. Whether the COVID pandemic or the increased spotlight the league is putting on social justice issues is having the more consequential effect on its bottom line is not clear.

Various contemporary commentators have been bemoaning what they view as the increasing “politicization” of sports in recent years. Most point to Colin Kaepernick’s decision to begin kneeling during the national anthem as a protest against what he and others believed was the unfair treatment of African Americans in the US as the starting point of this injection of social and political issues into the professional sports world. You don’t have to look back far to see that sports and politics have been intertwined for much of the 20th century. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something different about today’s athlete-activists.

Politicized Sports, Past and Present

In 1967, during the height of the Vietnam War, then heavyweight champion of the world Muhammad Ali was arrested, although never imprisoned, for refusing to serve in the military, claiming that his religious beliefs prevented him from joining and aiding in a war. Ali would not be allowed to fight for more than three years and arguably lost the prime of his fighting career and untold millions in income. While he gained immeasurably in social and political standing as a result of his decision, Ali was ostracized, harassed by the FBI, and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees trying to stay out of jail and get his boxing license reinstated.

Before Ali, of course, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball and faced harsh reactions from many white players and fans. Jesse Owens, who suffered throughout his life from racism in the U.S. was a hero in the 1936 Olympics as a symbol of opposition to Nazism. And there are many other examples of individuals we now view with admiration standing up for principles we now largely accept—that there should be no legal barrier against individuals having access to pursue the lives they wish to lead because of their race or ethnicity. So in some ways, the idea that combining politics and sports is a “new” phenomenon is wrong.

However, we have to ask how these previous examples of political activism compare to the actions that a group of highly paid professional athletes is taking today. Refusing to play in reaction to a news item, even one that seems to fit into our national conversation about a widely perceived problem, seems to be very different from what Owens, Robinson, and even Ali did. Like the pioneers who came before them, these players are no doubt trying, to the best of their abilities, to play a role in stopping what they believe is unfair treatment. But unlike the political and social context that Owens, Robinson, and Ali faced, African Americans are no longer legally prevented from doing anything. Other less obvious barriers that minorities face in everyday life no doubt exist and need to be taken seriously in policy discussions.  But those policy areas are not as pervasive or burdensome as segregation and Jim Crow. The word “systemic” is commonly used today, but no contemporary racial problem comes close to being as systemic as the barriers faced by mid-century black athletes.

Moreover, the solutions to today’s problems are not as black and white as they were in the previous century. Police reform is about as gray as a battleship when compared to the stark moral lines of Jim Crow. It raises important issues for minorities who don’t get good policing but who have also typically aligned themselves with a political party, the Democrats, who support public sector unions— a major obstacle to police reform. I think we can all agree that the police should not be killing people by choking them as they beg to be released. However, it is not clear what structural reforms are needed to improve the safety of African Americans and give them fuller access to the economic, political, and social aspects of American life. Nor is it clear how to achieve them. Such complicated questions cannot be boiled down to simple slogans on the back of jerseys.

Furthermore, unlike athletes in the 20th century, today’s athletes are paid handsomely for their performance through the revenue generated from ticket sales, television contracts, merchandise sales, and various other ways public figures make money. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry and one that was growing substantially prior to the COVID outbreak. Franchise values across all sports are in the billions, league revenues have exploded, and player salaries have correspondingly grown into the hundreds of millions for the best players in various professional sports. African Americans and Latinos make up a large percentage of professional athletes in some of the most popular American sports including baseball, football, and basketball. With that kind of wealth and representation, athletes do not generate wide sympathy across the US population, particularly one that has just suffered massive unemployment in the wake of the government’s decision to lock down our economy in the wake of COVID.

Sports, Activism, and Success

Sports have undoubtedly helped to uplift African Americans in the US and elsewhere. But once the formal color barrier was broken, athletes like Ali, Kaepernick, and others seem to represent a different approach to the politicization of sports. As an athlete, Ali followed in the footsteps of Joe Louis, who was the first African American heavyweight champion of the world. Louis broke down barriers because he was successful and non-political, in much the same way Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole were in the entertainment world. They made money, were popular among white and black audiences, and didn’t overtly challenge conventional white notions of how society should be.

I have no interest in listening to the simplified slogans of athletes or entertainers on political matters. I also wouldn’t go to an attorney for dental work.

Ali was not Louis Armstrong or Joe Louis. Ali belonged to the Nation of Islam. He spoke openly and provocatively about racism. He was friends with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, both of whom would be assassinated for political reasons. He made comments about race relations, often incendiary ones about whites, and attacked his black opponents whom he called “Uncle Toms” and other derogatory terms. He used such language with Joe Frazier before the first of their famous battles in 1971.

Now in boxing, drawing attention to the fight with conflict and personal attacks is part of the business. To the extent that Ali was a showman and a political figure, he regularly and freely crossed back and forth between the two venues. And even though he wasn’t the best businessperson in the world, he became famous and relatively wealthy. He helped lay the foundation for Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and other African American athletes who were accepted both as athletes and public figures—people who could endorse mainstream products and reap the rewards.

Kaepernick is more like the early Ali—clearly a more political figure, but one who is not uninterested in money. Ali made and lost fortunes during his early years in boxing while he was engaged in political activity. Kaepernick, shunned unfairly by the NFL, turned to social justice not only as a cause but also a vocation. Kaepernick signed a reportedly very lucrative Nike contract, along with several other prominent African American athletes as part of the company’s attempt to market itself as not merely an athletic wear company, but one that supports social justice. (Imagine a hiking company that supports environmental causes: Companies, athletes, and agents understand that branding matters.)

However, this move into politics is not without risks to the economics of sports. While Ali drew eyes to his fights as the controversial firebrand of the new, young African American taking on white America, it is easy to forget that he also alienated many fans. While Kaepernick is clearly popular among a segment of the population, he is regularly the target of conservative attacks and criticism. In the case of the NBA, all one has to do is look at the league’s embarrassing messaging disaster regarding China late in 2019 in which current social justice warriors, like LeBron James, rejected the idea that they ought to criticize China’s appalling human rights record because it is a country in which their personally branded merchandise sold for millions.

No one is looking for a lecture

The move to engage in the politics of international relations or policing is a very different, and much more complicated, kettle of fish than arguing that individuals should not be excluded from participating in sports because of their race or ethnicity. The idea that Jackie Robinson couldn’t play baseball because he was black presented a simple question to Americans, and one they ultimately got right. Ali presented a less obvious challenge when he argued that blacks, although more widely accepted than they had been, were still fighting for equality in the South and access to housing and schools and jobs from which they were largely excluded.

That’s very, very different than getting caught up with how the US and China should maintain economic and political relations. It may be more similar to debates over policing. However, the fundamental changes needed to truly reform the police—most notably the removal of qualified immunity for police officers, efforts to restructure policing locally, and limitations on the power of public sector police unions—are a can of poisonous snakes for those on the left who reflexively defend Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter.

To be clear, I am not saying BLM or Kaepernick are necessarily wrong. We do need to engage in serious and civil discussions about policing, and we have needed to do so for decades. However, as someone who has discussed police reforms publicly, I simply have no interest in listening to the simplified slogans of athletes or entertainers on these matters, and many people likely feel the same way. I also wouldn’t go to an attorney for dental work. Attorneys, dentists, NBA players, and actors are free to have political opinions, but those opinions never convince me to use their services. I go to them because of the jobs they do for me in a market. Their professional success in basketball, football, the law, or dentistry, regardless of their political views, race, ethnicity, or creed is the key issue for me.

I cannot begin to imagine the pressure or expectations that young, successful, prominent minorities feel to serve as role models for their communities. I commend them for doing what they believe is right. They are as free to make their actions “political” as they see fit. However, they and their supporters must recognize that in any reasonable liberal order, citizens and consumers of the entertainment/sports world are free to spend their dollars in venues that do not inject politics into the medium. If Colin Kaepernick or LeBron James wants to discuss the specifics of truly reforming the police, advancing the interests of minorities through market participation, and finding new and innovative alternatives to existing policies, rather than waving banners and relying on simple slogans, I and many others are ready to talk about that in appropriate political forums. But they seem uninterested in such a conversation and are benefitting quite handsomely from their pursuits. Good for them, but in a society highly polarized and fraught with angry simplistic language and slogans, I for one don’t need another lecture. I need a break from it all.

Reader Discussion

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on September 11, 2020 at 09:27:14 am

This essay is about half-right. The half it got right is the obvious stuff: rich, arrogant idiots who are idolized, pampered, self-serving, often racist, frequently illiterate, usually ignorant, isolated from reality, and capable at best of muttering sound-bite verbalizations of echo-chamber thought are seen by everybody as role models for nobody. "These people" deserve no attention from anybody on anything, especially when their patently-obvious motivations are greed and virtue-signaling.

The half the essay got wrong is the elephant in the room: the athletes AND their owners AND the commissioners of their sports AND their corporate sponsors AND the TV networks have ALL allied as social justice warriors on a fools' crusade to accuse their fans of racism and to declare moral war on the flag and the country for which it stands, perhaps the only country left on earth where patriotism is not just a word and where we still have the bodies to prove it.

They will not be forgiven.

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on September 11, 2020 at 12:40:41 pm

Well said

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on September 11, 2020 at 11:16:55 am

Why is kneeling during The National Anthem, which disrespects and discriminates against the lives of those who fought, and in many cases, died for the Freedoms we have today, an appropriate response to a desire to end brutality and racial discrimination, when kneeling during The National Anthem is an act of discrimination against a multitude of persons who fought, and in many cases, gave their very lives to defend our Country from other Nations who condoned appalling human rights violation? Why not simply make a statement before the game that you will dedicate your season to bring attention to the fact that you support all efforts to heal racial discrimination, and end brutality of any form that denies the fact that every son or daughter of a human person, from the moment they are brought into being at their conception, is a beloved son or daughter, worthy of being treated with Dignity and respect in private as well as in public, because all human life matters, and protecting human life from harm serves for the Good of the posterity and prosperity of this Nation and the whole wide global World.

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on September 11, 2020 at 13:55:01 pm

Kaepernick *unfairly* shunned by the NFL?
He was a serviceable quarterback at best, was unable to win the decisive games, was erratic on long passes and once defenses figured out how to contain his running (or at least minimize its impact, his value was greatly diminished. Look at how the Seahawks Legion of Boom dispensed with the "threat" of Kaepernick.
As for his not receiving a contract, it is important to remember that he was asking for starting quarterback salary when he was probably going to be a backup. As an example, should the Seahwaks have paid him $25 million when they had Russell Wilson, a far more accurate AND intelligent (in a football sense) quarterback?
As someone who attended every 49er - Seahawk game, I can tell you that Wilson was the far more valuable player, the better field general AND just as explosive and unpredictable in the quarterback running game.
Then again, why hire someone who is going to antagonize your fan base.

As to the present "sports politicking", I will after many long tears of fandom - Pass! - and play golf instead.
The Left ruins everything. Let us see if NFL ratings tank as much as NBA ratings have. One wonders, if ratings decline, will these "athlete-statesmen" continue to command $40 million per year salaries?

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on September 11, 2020 at 14:06:02 pm

Next to Al Sharpton, Kaepernick is the slickest race-hustler in America if one measures race-hustling success by the money one raises to enrich himself. Kaepernick was a 2d rate quarterback who was washed up in the NFL, so he figured out a way to market his name by identifying it with a cause and then exploiting that cause. All he had to do to make the scam work and get rich was deny, denounce and betray his country.

Benedict Arnold did no less but for far less money.

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on September 11, 2020 at 13:55:48 pm

Nancy, yet again, raises the crux of the matter, reverence for the God-given right to life. For our Christian nation only love of God can be a higher priority than respect for the dignity of the human person.

Athletes and their owners, commissioners, TV distributors and sponsors, rather than misdirecting their uber-angst and hyper-sensitivity toward the handful of black victims of unwarranted police violence and throwing away their money to support BLM, a Marxist organization intent on destroying America by inciting violence and anarchy, ought to kneel before each game in silent memory of the 50 million prenatal American infants sacrificed to mere convenience and to the racism of wealthy, white Blue State Democrats who fund Planned Parenthood and abet the systematic murder of millions of inner-city black children.

Now there's a cause worthy of not just our athletes but of our entire nation taking a knee and asking God's forgiveness.

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on September 11, 2020 at 15:56:46 pm

In other words, Blastocyst Lives Matter (BLM). A few related thoughts:
1) The Golden Rule says I cannot cherish my life at the expense of your innocent (non-criminal) life (even if we don't end up sharing the same opinion about divinity and man's creation in God's image, etc.).
2) The pregnant woman's body is not her's alone after conception and certainly after implantation - and a potential human being is there (genetically), analogous to those whom Dr. Carson might have treated as conjoined twins.
3) I think the Freakonomics suggestion has been discredited that increased abortions in the 70's led to fewer young black males and thus reduced crime in the 90's; but when Roe is overturned we will need to address a faster increase in population than might otherwise occur.
4) We will want and need to grow to a population in the 400+ million range to properly compete against a CCP led China of 1400 million people; and may still need alliances with the 1300+ million Indians, 25 million Australians, 125 million Japanese, and whatever fraction of the millions in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East can also be brought on board. As they say, quantity has a quality all of its own, whether dealing with soldiers or geniuses.
5) items 3) and 4) also will have a push and a pull impact on immigration policy, to ensure we end up with the most talented populace possible.
6) to bring this back to today's topic: this population increase will also provide a larger group from which to find and select the superior athletes, but also (dare I say) lawyers, engineers, academics, medical personnel, and military and business and political leaders. Maybe we will even find an MLK or a Lincoln among them. One can hope.

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on September 11, 2020 at 16:43:52 pm

Acronymic Genius, BLM!
From the Book of Embryogenesis.
HaHa! Love the irony.

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on September 11, 2020 at 16:27:21 pm

I used to like football and a smidgen of basketball. After the 2000 market crash I kept hearing athletes complain about how under paid they were while I had been laid off and I was worried that I might have to sell house and move into an apartment. So I stopped watching pro sports because of all the mindless whining. I tried to watch football again one day. As it happened, the day I chose to see if it could watch a gaime I picked the infamous Kaepernick kneeling game. I'll never watch pro football again. Or basketball either. I want a brief escape. If I wanted to watch preaching I'd turn on a religious channel. I'll maybe watch a little baseball. Luv hockey though. Where baseball players take two weeks off for a blister or "tight hamstrings," hockey players will play with broken bones. A bunch of tough SOBs who don't cry. I like that.

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Scott Amorian
on September 11, 2020 at 16:34:16 pm

I suppose it has always been true; this is nothing new. Many 'celebrities' who are famous mostly for being famous live much of their lives in bubbles behind 'handlers', and have relatively little understanding of the 'real world' of 'ordinary people.' But they have platforms to voice opinions about things they no little about. What's changed is that in the age of Twitter, they speak more directly, without being filtered by interviewers and editors. What's the saying about keeping your mouth closed, and letting people wonder if you are a fool, opening your mouth and removing all doubt? It's relatively rare that someone who is already famous outside the realm of politics and public affairs can move into public affairs and demonstrate common sense. (Ronald Reagan was one of those rare ones). Generally we shouldn't give too much credence to celebrities. The problem here is that they are working too hard to be in our faces, and they are hard to ignore.

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on September 11, 2020 at 17:57:35 pm

Why don't you begin a discussion on how US sports became politicized with the decision of white people, mostly white men, to exclude black Americans from professional sports leagues? Instead of focusing on black's "reactions" to white politicizing of sports, maybe you can go to the source of the "politicization" by beginning with the white folks who initially determined that being a black American disqualified you from professional sports league, which often led blacks to create their own. And secondly, maybe the reason you want to contrast the present generation from that of Owens, Robinson, and Ali is less that their circumstances don't warrant comparison--although the white racism they're responding to seems to be a commonality, if only in kind if not magnitude; but, rather, what the fact that blacks are still protesting against police brutality says about the "present" generation of white people. What do you think Mr. Lynch?

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Amy Gardiner
on September 12, 2020 at 10:53:36 am

Here is a statistic for you from the DOJ:

BLACK police officers are more likely to shoot Black suspects than are their white counterparts.
Now, wHAT does THAT tell you about the "present" generation of white people?

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on September 12, 2020 at 12:04:43 pm

As I note in the article the difference between segregation/Jim Crow and today's protests regarding police activity is more complicated and requires policy changes that are in conflict with the natural political allies of the American Left.

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G. Patrick Lynch
on September 12, 2020 at 16:02:16 pm

I think the point of my essay is that unlike segregation, and you are correct to point out that law was created by whites, police brutality cannot just be repealed. Policies and institutions need to be changed and until that conversation begins, from all parties, we won't see any substantive reform. That's my worry

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G. Patrick Lynch
on September 13, 2020 at 18:21:02 pm

We really do not need a "conversation." That is not just a silly cliche, it is a dangerous falsehood. And the problem is not systemic racism in police departments, other institutions or anywhere else. Systemic racism is a fiction manufactured by the anti-American left in order to advance their strategy of destruction of the institutions of law, government, religion, family and economy that stand in their way.

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on September 12, 2020 at 10:27:40 am

Today 43% of MLB players, 70% of NFL players and 81% of NBA players are POC. Why is anyone in the year 2020 angry that Satchel Paige, because of his race, was forced to spend 23 years pitching in the Negro Leagues before he was enabled, because of America's enormous and swift moral progress, to spend 18 years pitching in the Majors?

Anger is a psychological phenomenon, not an inheritable commodity. It is passed on, one generation to the next, only when it is taught and becomes the learned desire for revenge, which warrants no moral sympathy or legal tolerance.

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on September 13, 2020 at 16:04:47 pm

Mr . Lynch's essay and the subsequent comments form a microcosm of the role of narrative and myth in public discourse.

To reiterate a point that I have made previously, most modern political narratives are Sorelian myths, useful because of their ability to provoke action rather than to enlighten conversation or promote rational discussion. These narratives and myths can either be true, partially true or completely false, and as myths evolve may over their histories be all three.

Mr. Lynch gives passing recognition to the dominant narrative which he describes as "the widely held view that African Americans are frequently the targets of police harassment and brutality." He does not address this narrative directly, providing no data or argument that either supports or refutes it, choosing instead to address a different narrative: "Various contemporary commentators have been bemoaning what they view as the increasing 'politicization' of sports in recent years." He then states his thesis: there is "something different about today's athlete-activists." This statement seems rather anodyne, neither advancing or refuting more widespread narratives, but in the subsequent discussion, Mr. Lynch makes some narrative-relevant claims. He alludes to those larger narratives by stating "Refusing to play in reaction to a news item, even one that seems to fit into our national conversation about a widely perceived problem" seems very different..." (emphasis added) He then proceeds to deliver arguments that in fact do counter the wider narrative:

"But unlike the political and social context that Owens, Robinson and Ali faced, African Americans are no longer legally prevented from doing anything."

"...those policy areas are not as pervasive or burdensome as segregation and Jim Crow. The word 'systemic' is commonly used today but no contemporary racial problem comes close to being as systemic as the barriers faced by mid-century black athletes."

These claims are empirically true, and form the basis of a counter-narrative or counter-myth to increasingly unmoored allegations of the dominant myth. As this happens the dominant myth, that began being primarily true, becomes a myth mixing truth and falsity, and become less true in the re-telling. We get to unsubstantiated absurdities as all white people are racist, modern policing was born of slave-catching, and problems in policing arise from "whiteness."

In response to Mr. Lynch's non-dominant narrative-compliant claims, Ms. Gardiner attempts some narrative-stewardship, using a conventional tactic: demanding to know why Mr. Lynch did not address her preferred narrative ("Why don't you begin a discussion on how...) thus restating and validating it, even though the allegations of that narrative are far from accepted. She then uses another widely used narrative-control tactic, a combination of straw man and ad hominem, argument, by questioning the motives of those with differing views ("...maybe the reason you want to..."). Finally, she resorts to the fundamental procedure of narrative maintenance, referring to highly disputed claims as though they were indisputable ("...white racism they're responding to seems to be a commonality, if only in kind if not magnitude but, rather, what the fact that blacks are still protesting against police brutality says about the 'present' generation of white people.") Note that this is the practical opposite of Mr. Lynch's assertion and takes for granted that "police brutality" is a "white" phenomenon that is what she says it is. It also conflicts with Mr. Lynch's assertion that "Police reform is about as gray as a battleship..." It also ignores the possibility that blacks protesting police brutality may say something about things other than the present generation of whites.

From here, Guttenburg's presents a fact that counters the dominant narrative, and hints at how the myth contained in that narrative is becoming less reality-based. Paladin then engages the dominant argument, bolstering Mr, Lynch's supposed thesis ("America's enormous and swift moral progress...") and delivering a broadside into the moral assumptions of that narrative ("Anger...warrants no moral sympathy..."). Mr. Lynch then re-appears, seeming to claim that he is not really talking about that dominant narrative, but rather about a conversation that has not yet started. ("...until that conversation begins....")

This essay and thread provides insight not only into how narratives are created and used to provoke responses, but also into how they evolve. We can see that narratives and myths tend toward more fantastic claims, and are difficult to control. These narratives bump up against observable facts that are contrary to the underlying myths, which does not definitively invalidate them but which raises fair questions. They latch on to novel concepts and biased interpretations of events, and in so doing stimulate skepticism, which is then met with logical fallacies, ad hominem attacks (The use of the epithet "racist" might reasonably be assumed) and pressure tactics. One foresees that eventually the underlying assumptions of widely distributed narratives will come under scrutiny. The crucial question might then be whether those narratives can survive such scrutiny.

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on September 13, 2020 at 17:12:20 pm

I enjoyed learning about a new technique, that is, " narrative stewardship". This comment provides a model for understanding a strategy often demonstrated but, at least in my case, not well understood. The entire comment is helpful; the last paragraph in particular. Thank you,

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