Professional sports is ruthlessly meritocratic. Why are so many stars wallowing in bumper sticker moralizing?
Gregg Popovich, Sports, and Politics
I love Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, as a coach and as a personality. One of the two or three greatest coaches of all time, Popovich’s teams play smart basketball and the colorfulness of his personality adds greatly to the game. He is even fun to make fun of – see here at 1 minute, 58 seconds.
Unfortunately, Popovich has been speaking out on politics recently. Here is an excerpt from a speech:
“Obviously, race is the elephant in the room, and we all understand that, but unless it is talked about constantly, it is not going to get better,” Popovich said. “People get bored. ‘Oh, is it that again. He’s pulling the race card again. Why do we have to talk about that?’ Well, because it’s uncomfortable and there has to be an uncomfortable element in the discourse for anything to change. Whether it’s the LGBT movement or women’s suffrage, it doesn’t matter. People have to be made to feel uncomfortable, and especially white people, because we’re comfortable. We still have no clue of what being born white means … It’s hard to sit down and decide, yes, it’s like you are at the 50-meter mark in a 100-meter dash. You’ve got that kind of a lead. Yes, because you were born white, you have advantages that are systemically, culturally, psychologically, there, and they have been built up and cemented for hundreds of years. but many people can’t look at it. It’s too difficult … People want to hold their position. They want the status quo. People don’t want to give that up. And until it is given up, it’s not going to be fixed.”
I going to put to the side whether, and to what extent, Popovich’s position is well-taken, because it is largely beside the point I want to make. Popovich’s position is controversial and many people will disagree with it. Should Popovich be making controversial political statements?
There is a strong argument he shouldn’t be. We live in extremely divisive times, where these divisions are seeming to tear the country apart. If one thinks that is a problem – as people on both the left and right increasingly seem to believe – the question is how to address that.
One way to address this political divisiveness is to limit the areas where politics is discussed. It is familiar refrain that one should not discuss religion or politics at parties, and there is much sense underlying it. If politics are discussed, people will often end up fighting. If politics are avoided, then people can connect about other things.
The same argument applies to not having politics intrude on sports. If people can avoid politics when it comes to sports, then they can connect about the sports. Left wing and right wing people can agree to love the Spurs, without even thinking about politics, and other left wing and right wing people can agree to hate them, again without thinking about politics. It is the basketball, not politics, that matters.
Thus, keeping politics out of sports both allows people to connect on other issues and gives them some respite from political fights.
Of course, people in sports have freedom of speech, and that means the government cannot ban their speech. But that does not mean it is good for the country for the leagues, for players, or sports media to talk about politics.
Yet, I think it is unlikely that politics will be removed from sports. Each political ideology tries to use the power it has, and the left has a significant advantage in that they control elite sports. Still, sports enterprises may pay a price. Viewership of the NFL is down over the last couple of years, and the protests are likely one cause of this decline. Eventually, this will cost the owners, the players, and media money, and they may be forced to reconsider.
Of course, the effect may turn on the sport. Basketball can probably get away with greater social liberalism than football, due to the demographics of their viewers. But perhaps if football continues to engage in such antics, there will be enough of a decline in viewership that they will constrain themselves a bit. Here’s hoping.