We Can’t Just “Stick to Sports”: Why Apoliticism is a Myth

In 2016, Colin Kaepernick decides to kneel during the national anthem to protest and bring attention to police brutality against black Americans and systemic racism in the United States. A few others (a fair number of WNBA players and Megan Rapinoe) follow Kaepernick’s lead and do the same. This gets headlines, criticism, and of course gets twisted somehow into being about disrespecting the flag and the troops, but the fervor dies down somewhat particularly as Kaepernick is blacklisted by the NFL.

Other NFL players kneel during the anthem. Donald Trump, using his platform in the only way he knows how, blasts them on Twitter and says they should be fired and calls on his supporters to boycott the NFL. Among other things, he calls them “sons of bitches” and publicly rescinds the White House invitation to Steph Curry when it’s noted on television that Curry isn’t interested in attending the traditional ceremony to honor the NBA champions. LeBron James fires back. Twitter descends into chaos. Amidst all of this, the Pittsburgh Penguins, for some godforsaken reason, issue a statement saying they intend to go to the White House when invited.

Last year, when the issue of kneeling first came up, John Tortorella, coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, said he would sit any player who knelt during the anthem. A few players were vocal about their support of Kaepernick, JT Brown of the Lightning being one. Blake Wheeler and Jacob Trouba of the Jets have similarly been supportive. But by and large the discussion in the NHL has been redirected towards the idea of “respect” and “honoring veterans,” which is the narrative that has consistently been used to distract from the actual issue Kaepernick wanted to raise. And then there’s the persistent insistence that politics has no place in sports, that athletes should keep their opinions to themselves, all of which ties into hockey’s very real problems with demanding conformity and blandness from their players.

Let’s ignore the strangeness of compulsory patriotism. Let’s ignore the fact that respect for veterans isn’t confined to standing for an anthem (I think many would prefer improved veteran services), and let’s talk instead about the idea that the Penguins “put aside” politics by accepting the invitation and the idea that politics have no place in sports.

Every time someone says that politics have no place in sports, I want to laugh in their face. Very little in life is apolitical. And many of the most celebrated moments in sports history are fundamentally political. Everyone points to Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists at the 1968 Olympics, but what about the Miracle on Ice? Jackie Robinson? Or even Bird versus Johnson, which was great basketball but was also about race and Boston being known as a hotbed of racism. Every Olympics is political, because part of wanting your country to win is wanting to be superior to other countries.

It’s my opinion that the coverage of #takeaknee has been wildly irresponsible, especially among hockey reporters. They have allowed the conversation to be steered toward supposedly apolitical matters of respecting the flag and veterans, rather than saying, “Do you understand what this protest is about and do you support that?” They have not challenged players to be anything more than the bland, blank slates they have always been, and in that they pretend that this is remaining neutral when instead, by allowing the conversation to be shifted to matters of respect, they are once again obscuring the true issue at stake: that black people are killed and incarcerated at disproportionate rates and that there is a sickness at the heart of American ideology as long as we let this go unsaid.

To say that the Penguins put politics aside in accepting the White House invitation is to be grossly ignorant of the impression this leaves. When we watched players in the NFL take the knee this weekend (many probably in opposition to Trump rather than in support of Kaepernick which, again, is a separate issue) to support the idea of protest, when we saw LeBron shoot back that Curry never wanted to go to the White House, we saw a solidarity among these athletes. The uncritical, completely unnecessary press statement from the Penguins said, beneath the surface, “We do not stand with these players.” They did not address the issue of the president insulting their colleagues for daring to espouse their beliefs. They did not say a word about the protests, the inciting incident of this entire shitshow. They did not say anything remotely challenging, and in doing so, they took a side. They took the side of compliance and complacency, and by announcing it, even saying that players are allowed to do what their individual consciences demand, tacitly forced all their players to play along, because hockey players hate to stand out, hate to make a stand, because hockey hates that.

And that is a political statement, whether you like it or not. Whether you believe it or not. To remain silent is to be complicit, and the Penguins have thrown their hat in the ring in opposition to those players who have chosen to speak out despite the risks, in opposition to athletes in the NFL and the NBA, and the wider hockey world continues to sidestep the actual issue at stake: that there is a deep, gaping wound at the heart of this country that won’t be healed unless we address racism and persistent inequality head-on.

Take a knee, gentlemen. But not because I ask, or because you dislike Donald Trump. Do it because protesting for equality is the heart of America.  Do it for Colin Kaepernick, who knelt long before Trump was president, and for Michael Brown, and for Eric Garner and Emmett Till and Tamir Rice. Take a knee.

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