Luke DeCock

Do athletes’ protests make Trump uncomfortable? How about you? That’s the whole point.

UNC beat Gonzaga 71-65 on April 3, 2017 at the NCAA Final Four National Championship game in Glendale, Az. at the University of Phoenix Stadium.
UNC beat Gonzaga 71-65 on April 3, 2017 at the NCAA Final Four National Championship game in Glendale, Az. at the University of Phoenix Stadium. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Sports and politics have always been inextricably intertwined, no matter what lengths people have gone to in an attempt to keep the two separated, but the pretense is gone forever now.

The announcement by North Carolina’s national championship basketball team that it will not visit the White House – unrelated, apparently because of a scheduling conflict, but of precipitous timing – was merely the latest in a crazy 18 hours in the wake of Donald Trump’s criticism of protesting NFL players on Friday night and Steph Curry on Saturday. A sitting president has initiated a verbal war with athletes, to the point where even the flag-waving NFL, a league that had several owners make seven-figure contributions to Trump’s inauguration, called Trump’s rhetoric divisive.

This after Trump demanded the firing of ESPN anchor Jemele Hill after her tweets calling him a white supremacist at the same time Congress felt the need to pass a bipartisan resolution to get Trump to condemn those same concepts.

The old chestnut of “stick to sports” died for good Saturday, when Trump’s profane comments about players like Colin Kaepernick and tweet about Curry and the Golden State Warriors prompted LeBron James to call Trump a “bum.” Sunday’s NFL games, where the protests Kaepernick started last year have spread slowly, will be very interesting to watch now. And the idea that sports offered some kind of respite from politics, always flawed, has forever been abandoned.

It was ever thus. From Jesse Owens in Munich to Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn, from John Carlos and Tommie Smith in Mexico City to Muhammad Ali’s entire career, from Charlie Scott at UNC to the Missouri football players protesting racial injustice on their campus, our wider political issues have always played out in the sports arena. A sitting president lashing out at NFL and NBA players will only catalyze them, and other athletes, to protest issues that were already simmering just under the surface.

And if some fans don’t like it? Well, that’s the point. Protest is supposed to make people uncomfortable. Kneeling for the national anthem, like Kaepernick or Michael Bennett have, or raising a fist, like Smith and Carlos did, is designed to force attention to issues that might otherwise be easily overlooked by people unaffected by them. For issues important to Kaepernick and Bennett and other NFLers, like institutional racism and police brutality, that unaffected group probably includes the majority of NFL fans.

Despite the NFL’s transparent blackballing of Kaepernick, professional players hold tremendous power. They can be punished individually, like Kaepernick, but not collectively. And at the president’s instigation, based on Saturday’s flood of political opinions on Twitter, they appear ready to start exerting their influence en masse. A new era of athlete political protest is under way, and will only accelerate now.

Sports has always been a reflection of society. Our larger issues play out there. They always have. There is no pretending otherwise now.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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