Focusing on sports this week was difficult.
Joking about the World Series and all 18 innings of a Game 3 that extended well into the middle of the night was hard. Revelling in the New Orleans Saints’ triumph in their first game against the Minnesota Vikings since last season’s heartbreaking “Minneapolis Miracle” game was hard. It was even hard to follow NFL pundits lambasting the New York Giants for, as of Wednesday morning, keeping Eli Manning as their starting quarterback.
What made sports so difficult to follow this week was, well — all the other news.
And many in the sports world agreed.
Following an antisemitic hate crime at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday, during which a neo-Nazi murdered 11 Jewish people, the Pittsburgh Steelers spoke out.
Steelers team president Art Rooney II issued a statement on Sunday morning offering support to the victims and their families and condemning antisemitism and “hate crimes of any nature.” He also called for a moment of silence before the start of Sunday’s game.
Other members of the Steelers organization spoke out as well. Steelers wide receiver Ryan Switzer wore a shirt saying “love thy neighbor” to the postgame press conference, saying he hoped to “shine a light on the hate and the random acts of violence that are going on in our world today.”
In an address to the team on Saturday evening, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin shared that he lived about 800 yards away from the Tree of Life Synagogue, and that he was glad to serve the community with the game on Sunday, according to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler.
Steelers running back James Conner, among others, rightfully acknowledged that the day was “bigger than football.”
The way the Steelers organization acknowledged the tragedy of the shooting — for the Pittsburgh community, the Jewish community and other minority communities who face bigotry and hatred in the United States — is commendable.
But it is not enough. The sports world must participate more in discourse on social and political issues.
The role politics play in sports — and vice versa — is undeniable. Politics and sports share an inextricable relationship: From Jackie Robinson integrating Major League Baseball in 1947 to the current fight for higher wages in the WNBA, sports have both mirrored and affected social and political phenomena throughout history.
Many politicians today do not respect the line between sports and politics. Our current president not only weighs in casually on sports but also takes inflammatory stances on issues where sports and politics intersect.
After NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality and other players followed suit, President Donald Trump’s numerous comments blasting Kaepernick, NFL players and the league as a whole solidified the issue on a national political stage.
On Sept. 5, Trump tweeted, “Just like the NFL, whose ratings have gone WAY DOWN, Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts. I wonder if they had any idea that it would be this way? As far as the NFL is concerned, I just find it hard to watch, and always will, until they stand for the FLAG!”
Sports and athletes cannot escape politics — so they shouldn’t try.
Those in sports — athletes, journalists and members of organizations — have a heightened platform that, in this political climate, we simply can’t afford to waste.
From social media to television screens to online and digital publications, the sports world has a voice that is extremely powerful when it denounces bigotry or protests social injustice. It could be used even more frequently and loudly — not only to speak out, but also to elevate the voices of those who are not afforded the same platform.
The many athletes and journalists who already serve as models for speaking out about and taking action against social injustices — like LeBron James, Richard Sherman and Jemele Hill deserve credit for their actions. Publications tackling the intersections of sports, politics, culture and race such the The Undefeated, deserve similar recognition.
Still, so many missed opportunities remain for others in the sports world — including myself — to shine a light on social injustices that we cannot afford to pass up.
Many, including journalist Laura Ingraham, believe those in the sports world should stick to sports — to “shut up and dribble” — because it is not their job to involve themselves in political discourse. Others simply wish sports would remain a safe haven from politics.
But there are many in this country who do not have the privilege of a “safe haven” against politics — whose daily lives are affected by discrimination, police brutality, race, religion, ethnic or gender-based violence, to name a few. We cannot afford to ignore those voices to preserve our own safe havens.
Arguments claiming that athletes should ignore politics also fail to recognize the discussions surrounding sports are not a zero sum game. Cultivating a more welcoming environment for athletes and journalists to speak out against injustices would not harm the games themselves. Allowing athletes, coaches and journalists to enter discussions about politics does not take the focus off of sports — those will never go away.
We have so much to gain in calling out injustice and fighting for equality — in encouraging the sports world to speak out. In staying silent, we have even more to lose.