Sports No Longer A Component Of Racism Solution – Hartford Courant
On an early Virginia night, brought to Emancipation Park by the intersection of UConn football and a passion for our democracy, I look up at an unsightly tarp covering a Civil War general and his horse, Traveller.
The first urge is to break out my Twitter snark and wonder if ESPN announcer Robert Lee is hiding under there. The second is to go on a 140-character Jemele Hill rampage against racism, white supremacy, Nazis and the KKK. The third is to point out, as a once-dedicated Civil War buff, that I’d already visited this bronzed Robert Edward Lee sculpture twice before and that history will remember Lee as a great military officer and brave leader of men.
I will do none of the three. I bury my iPhone in my pocket. I may not be terribly wise, but I am wiser than 14 months ago. I have grown wary of the role of the great umbrella of sport in helping to stop the rain of society’s hate. I have grown disheartened.
With young African-American men and policemen lying dead in our streets, I applauded Carmelo Anthony and other athletes who got involved in effort to stop the spiraling ugliness and confrontation in July 2016. I grew heartened by the Olympic basketball teams, men and women, spending an important day with the leaders of the Los Angeles police department and the community before heading to Rio. Like it or not, athletes in our society carry enormous clout, and the thought of Anthony, LeBron James and other African-American athletes taking determined, specific steps in leading the way to understanding and alleviating fear and mistrust was a wonderful thought.
And then Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem. The NFL quarterback said he refused to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people. I respect his right of free expression. I agreed with many of his words. Yet, unlike so many of my liberal brethren, I did not agree with Kaepernick’s actions. He had re-introduced centuries old sins of our nation, complex and overarching, I feared he would take the national focus off the 21st century black and blue problem. He refused to stand for the national anthem, an act certain to be divisive, seen as grandstanding, and inflame millions of Americans. Sure enough, Kaepernick helped make it a red, white and blue problem.
There is no denying that the NFL is a hypocritical corporate powerhouse. You can beat your wife and find work. You speak your mind, open your heart, like Kaepernick did, and you find yourself unemployed.
Yet the evolution of Kaepernick’s stance and the rise of Donald Trump have only underscored that we are much less a nation of spirited yet respectful debate and much more a nation interested in the quick W and the L. Honoring the other person’s argument and compromised solutions are weaknesses.
Since the rise of multichannel, agenda-driven cable television, where preaching to the choir has become the one common trait, this has been a quarter-century downward spiral. Throw in Twitter, the opiate of the knee-jerk masses and the crack cocaine of journalism, and that W and L scoreboard is in your face every minute of every day. Got to win. Can’t lose.
Civil discourse doesn’t get ratings. Turn on Fox and MSNBC and you won’t even know you’re living in the same country. The world may be a complicated place, but not on Twitter. Absolutes are only a click away.
I spent my career believing athletics, as a microcosm of society, can play an important role in it. Yet it’s difficult to see how athletes, quickly painted as loud-mouthed activists if they step out of their lane, can be embraced in this environment. That goes for liberal or conservative athletes. It’s difficult to see how the sports media, quickly painted as agenda-driven and unqualified to speak outside athletics, can be embraced in an environment that already is dealing in absolutes.
ESPN management is under duress from within its walls all the way to the White House. Its system for containing and disciplining talent on matters outside sports has been laced with double standards. Pulling Robert Lee as a broadcaster from a Virginia game after the violence in Charlottesville, to save him from being made fun of on Twitter simply was laughable. In ESPN’s defense, each of these seemingly never-ending stream of problems are specific and individual by nature. That caveat does not satisfy the public, especially those who point to a majority of liberal voices at the sports monolith.
Which brings us to Jemele Hill’s tweets of earlier this week:
“Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.”
“Trump is the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime. His rise is a direct result of white supremacy. Period.”
“Donald Trump is a bigot.”
“He is unqualified and unfit to be president … if he were not white, he never would have been elected.”
“I hate a lot of things but not enough to jeopardize my fellow citizens with an unfit, bigoted, incompetent moron.”
Hill apologized to ESPN for the public way her words “painted ESPN in an unfair light.” She did not back off her words. ESPN accepted the apology, and denied a report it tried to take Hill off the air Wednesday. A White House spokesman said Hill’s words are a “fireable offense.” Trump has demanded an apology from ESPN.
Hill is smart and provocative and has a life story that allows her to bring much to the ESPN table. That’s why she is in such a high-profile 6 p.m. position. I would challenge her on the blanket point that Trump’s rise is the direct result of white supremacy. Period. I did not vote for Trump. I would never vote for Trump. As smart and experienced as Hill is, she has not lived all Americans’ experiences. Trump’s rise among the disaffected is more complicated than race. And in the end, she got caught up in the same addiction Trump has: Twitter.
I now wonder, short of placing a conservative voice as her co-host or giving that conservative voice equal time on a similarly placed show, how ESPN can remedy its conundrum. The only answer — and it pains me to write — may be sports to stay in its lane.
From Yawkey Way to that banner draped over the Green Monster Wednesday night and on and on, sports voices are immersed in heated rhetoric. Fringe groups at either pole like the Nazis and the Antifa get big play on the news.