BY PETER DAHL
People have an incredible capacity to chase after the wind when real problems abound. This doesn’t change when the focus is sports. The buzz around the NFL this week will be full of overreactions, day-to-day injury updates and fantasy predictions, even though Death stalks the league wearing CTE on its robes like Greek letters. This skill of avoiding uncomfortable topics continues to mitigate the positive effect that sports might have on society and vice versa. Slaying the dragons in life and in sports has become a matter of convenience.
Once again, sport has brought race and police to the surface of a sea of troubles, and once again fans have been lethargic in their response. Former tennis player James Blake, of African-American descent, was mistreated by a police officer who threw Blake to the ground without any warning after mistakenly identifying Blake as a suspect in a stolen ID case. Whether race was a factor or not, it is another instance of poor performance from America’s police force that has received crickets from the populace.
This comes just a few weeks before Thabo Sefolosha of the Atlanta Hawks goes to court after a run-in with police last spring left him with a broken ankle that ended his season. Sefolosha, of Swiss-South African descent and arrested for obstructing justice, claims to have been mistreated by the police and has opted to fight to clear his name after spurning a fairly generous plea deal.
America has a race problem. And, despite all the good cops we know, America has a police problem. Sometimes these problems overlap. The malady here is that athletes who speak out on this issue have been ignored or even rebuked. In the wake of Darren Wilson’s non-indictment, the St. Louis Rams who walked out of the tunnel in the “hands up, don’t shoot” pose were targeted by Mike Ditka’s ignorant aspersions. The host of NBA players who wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts during warm-ups post-Eric Garner were put on blast by Geraldo Rivera and Bill O’Reilly on Fox News.
I’d like to think that the commentary of Ditka, Rivera, O’Reilly and others is a result of discomfort, not racism. But I can’t be sure. Either way, being uncomfortable is not reason enough to ignore this issue.
When we pay attention to products of sports that make us uncomfortable, change can happen. That video of Ray Rice savagely striking his wife and dragging her unconscious body out of the elevator shocked us. It angered us. And it moved us to action. There has been a noticeable increase in efforts to raise awareness concerning domestic violence in the time since Rice’s suspension. None of us wanted to see that awful footage, but it may result in preventing incidents like that from happening in the future.
Most of the time, calls for change come from sports only when it is easy or popular. While I appreciate the way the sports world has made at least token efforts to be progressive in issues of gender and sexuality, these actions have often been superficial and even come off as pandering attempts to keep up with changes in society. Not to say Michael Sam or Caitlyn Jenner had it easy, but throwing the prestigious Arthur Ashe Award at them did little to engage the issue in a helpful manner.
Our athletes face numerous challenges and injustices that deserve our attention. For instance, many come from poor upbringings and are ill-prepared to make the most of college or, for some, the riches that can follow in the pros. We are quick to highlight their ostentatious lifestyles after making millions, but we are slow to address the impoverished beginnings that so many of them came from and the social issues that create and perpetuate those environments.
Perhaps even worse, many kids are taken advantage of by NCAA sports programs. Oftentimes schools use talented athletes to earn the school money, prestige and athletic success while caring little for the well-being and future of the athlete. While a four-year degree may be part of the deal, many programs help their athletes do this unscrupulously or just let their players fail to graduate. Amateurism is a complex problem, and when athletes proposed unionization, they were denied the right to do so. They are essentially powerless in the matter.
It’s easy to look back at sports history and point to examples of progressivism, like Jackie Robinson. But that change only came after great discomfort. It’s easy to laud the inspirational life of Muhammad Ali, but we have to remember he was widely vilified in his day.
It’s time we let sports make us uncomfortable now and then and make our great pastimes an impetus for solutions, not just a source of more problems.