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All is fair in politics and sports

This past weekend, President Trump took a break from making war threats against other nations to thrust himself into discourse around sports and race by disinviting the Golden State Warriors to the White House. This came after calling on the NFL to suspend or fire players who protest the national anthem while speaking at a rally in Alabama. In a flurry of tweets, Trump launched into a condemnation of the National Football League, demanding  a nationwide boycott. While this certainly isn’t Trump’s first tirade against players protesting the national anthem, the scale of his most recent public sparring match gained significant backlash from players, coaches, and even some team owners.

Since Colin Kaepernick sparked controversy after refusing to stand for the national anthem in the summer of 2016, the role professional athletes should have in political discourse has come under scrutiny once again. While some Americans suggest that athletes like Kaepernick are politicizing an apolitical game, this claim outright ignores years of protests around racially-fueled tensions and demonstrations in sports. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists at the 1968 Mexico Olympics and Jesse Owens winning gold medals in 1936 in front of Adolf Hitler are both iconic moments that prove how deeply political sports, especially for black athletes, have always been. To demand athletes stop speaking out about state-sanctioned police violence, be silent and just play diminishes the agency of professional athletes while also reinforcing the racist tendency to view them as solely entertaining economic investments.

While this debate over free speech in sports is several decades long, recent developments have signaled a broadening of player’s criticism of police brutality and racial inequality to also include criticism of Donald Trump and his administration.  Dozens of players from teams across the country joined to make public statements against Trump, some of whom were silent when Kaepernick first began protesting. This signals the very specific role and position that Trump has in the eyes of these players as well as the eyes of the broader public. He has become such an alienating figure that athletes, celebrities and coaches alike feel comfortable strongly condemning the President of the United States in droves. Even though Trump sent tweets stating that attendance and ratings of NFL games were going down as a result of the protests—claims which were largely false—most public backlash has been against the President himself. 

Ultimately, this debate needs to remain conscientious of the fact that football and basketball players are people first and entertainers second. They are individuals with fears, opinions and autonomy with just as much right to exercise their rights to express political beliefs through protest if they choose. Insinuating that athletes simply “play the game” is not only a cop-out of a larger, more important discussion around agency, police brutality and how little the United States values black lives, but also inherently dehumanizing. These players are bravely using their platform to bring attention to larger social issues they face, just like other athletes that have come before them, in hopes that maybe, America will finally start listening.

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