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Sports and Politics: A More Perfect Union


“Hello everyone.  I’m Michael Jordan, and I’m here with Hillary.”

It was the final night of the raucous 2016 Democratic National Convention, and nearly everyone was in on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s joke.  I suppose even the GOP nominee got it:  The Hall-of-Famer’s follow-up — “I said that because I know that Donald Trump couldn’t tell the difference” — was neither fair nor particularly funny.

But the subtext was both ironic and telling.  Three decades earlier, when North Carolina’s U.S. Senator Jesse Helms ran a racially-tinged negative campaign against an African-American opponent, Tarheel legend Michael Jordan was asked to speak out.  Michael’s (in)famous response — “Republicans buy sneakers too” — set the tone for an apolitical career, and the precedent for a generation of star athletes to keep their mouths shut about politics.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, however, had emerged from an earlier, angrier era, and a much different mindset.  Jabbar was raising his voice even when he was still Lew Alcindor, joining Jim Brown, Bill Russell and other sports figures in defense of Muhammad Ali’s 1967 conscientious objection to the Vietnam War.  Today, with his own Muslim faith at the center of our national debate, Jabbar grabbed politics’ biggest stage to decry racism and help remind the country of the diversity and freedom that truly make American great.

Jabbar’s speech was not the most memorable, nor the most powerful, convention speech delivered by an American Muslim.  That honor, of course, went to the man whose family story Kareem introduced: Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim U.S. soldier who died to protect his unit in Iraq, and whose emotional rebuke of Trump’s patriotism elicited yet another set of head-scratching counter-punches from the GOP nominee, prompting the further wrath of Khan, and sending media tongues-a-wag for a few more news cycles.

But Kareem’s larger-than-life presence on the Philadelphia stage symbolized the new post-Jordan paradigm: the marriage between sports and politics is again both thriving and enduring.

A well-worn quip in the nation’s capital suggests that Washington is simply Hollywood for ugly people. But while one-offs like the White House Correspondents Dinner might make the power tie set feel like movie stars, the more apt analogy is to the wild world of sports. Certainly, today’s media — mainstream and social — cover the two indistinguishably: The cable screaming heads debate the political horse races far more than any complex policy positions.  The back and forth among candidates on Twitter and in stump speeches reads like locker room banter, or in the case of Trump, WWE-style braggadocio. Political addicts pore over polls and aggregated political data just as we scrutinize baseball box scores.  It’s no wonder that the nation’s go-to electoral soothsaying site, Nate Silver’s 538, is owned by ESPN.  And it’s no coincidence that the Bluegrass State’s arguably most popular source of political convention news — and inarguably, the forum for its most significant and influential political interviews in recent years — can be found on a sports radio program.

But most tellingly (or should I say, worse yet), as our politics have become more polarized and our governments have become more paralyzed, a growing number of Americans have begun to treat the parties with the same irrational, fanatic devotion as their favorite sports teams.  Since Tim Russert’s era-defining 2000 electoral maps, we even have devolved into color wars, defining ourselves as “blue” or “red” — although less Cats versus Cards than Crips versus Bloods.  We assign the worst of intentions to, and develop elaborate conspiracy theories about, our archrivals, while giving every benefit of the doubt to our fellow partisans.  For much of the public that lives and dies by who wins and who loses, it’s the modern, vicarious version of combat, with the goal, to quote a then-aspiring politician, “to crush your enemies.  See them driven before you.  And hear the lamentation of their women.”

I certainly have fallen victim to this kind of tribal thinking.  I reflexively defend my sports hero Tom Brady for destroying cell phone evidence in the Deflategate scandal, much as I excuse Hillary Clinton for deleting emails in the name of personal privacy.  I honor John Calipari’s growth into a truly admirable advocate for player welfare, much as I respect leading Democrats for evolving on marriage equality.  I have relished in the schadenfreude of intolerant conservative politicians being exposed for personal hypocrisy, just as I took delight in the Duke lacrosse faux-rape scandal “exposing” the narcissism and entitlement of the institution I love to hate — emotional instincts I abhor in myself and deeply regret.

But in this climate in which politics and sports can bring out the worst of us, the union of the two has begun to bring out the best of us.  We’ve seen it with Kareem, Ali and other prominent Muslim athletes reminding the nation that Islam is not our enemy, and that a religious freedom that extends to all faiths is not only a core value of American democracy but indeed its founding principle.  We’ve seen it with the sports world standing up for the LGBT community, particularly its vulnerable youth: last year, with the NCAA pressuring Indiana Governor (and now Trump running mate) Mike Pence to modify a discriminatory law; and just this past week, with the NBA pulling its all-star game out of Charlotte to protest North Carolina’s pernicious “bathroom bill.”

Most prominently, we’ve seen it over the past several months, with leading athletes stepping into the highly-charged discussion about renewed racial violence in the country.  Since Ferguson, through Baltimore and New York and Orlando and Falcon Heights and Baton Rouge and Dallas and…tragedy after tragedy of innocent civilians and fallen police officers…our most prominent sports stars have spoken through symbolic demonstrations and heart-felt memorials.  As public unrest seemed to reach a climax, four of the NBA’s greatest, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Dwayne Wade, took to the ESPY’s stage, decrying the killings, placing a spotlight on injustice, and in Paul’s words, “accepting our role in uniting communities to be the change we need to see.”  It’s a recognition that black voices matter, particularly among disaffected and disengaged millennials who’ve given up on unpopular political leaders, but who might just listen to their sports heroes who serve as their role models, whether they want to or not.

The childhood idol of many of today’s stars certainly was listening. Just this past week, Michael Jordan — yes, the apolitical, controversy-averse MJ himself — declared “I can no longer stay silent.”  Ali’s nearest rival for The Greatest of All Time, his father a victim of senseless violence, Michael Jordan embraced the activism of his protégés, symbolically uniting two generations of sports figures into common cause.

It would be absurdly naïve to suggest that our athletic heroes can heal our racial divide and solve our entrenched national problems. But in the midst of a dispirited body politic, the good will and team-oriented credibility lent by popular sports figures can help restore some sense of community to our nation.  And just possibly, a closer marriage of sports and politics could take us a few steps down the aisle toward a more perfect union.

Article written by Jonathan Miller

Jonathan Miller, The Recovering Politician (Twitter: @RecoveringPol), writes about the politics of sport and the sport of politics...and sometimes about bourbon. Jonathan has been elected twice as Kentucky's State Treasurer; practices as a crisis management attorney; authored three books on faith, public policy and crisis management; serves as a Contributor to The Daily Beast, played straight man on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; reached the final table of the World Series of Poker; and with his summer camp sweetheart, raised two remarkable twenty-something daughters.

40 Comments for Sports and Politics: A More Perfect Union

  1. KevinM
    8:53 pm July 31, 2016 Permalink

    Its a shame these ‘outspoken’ athletes have no clue about who the real racists are…..Assange’s WikiLinks exposed the DNC, yet its not even being mentioned by any of the liberal media.
    Shocking, and one thing I agree with Johnathan…Jabbar’s comment was not funny nor intelligent.

    • 7mm08
      9:45 am August 1, 2016 Permalink

      You are trying to say that a black guy that was born in the 1940s has “no clue” about racism? Really?! I think the DNC (and RNC) are a bunch of trash, but I fail to see how that pertains to the point of this article.

    • Megan
      1:36 pm August 1, 2016 Permalink

      A friend of mine makes the same argument: Dems are the “real racists.” He points out that the Democratic Party supported slavery and that the KKK was formed by the southern white Democrats of that era. And of course Lincoln was a Republican who freed the slaves. He adds that Republicans “passed” the Civil Rights Act. (Strange, as Kennedy proposed the legislation and Dems controlled both houses of Congress and Johnson signed it into law. More correctly, the GOP strongly supported passage, as they did the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But that would be the last time their party was associated with civil rights or minority interests.)

      My friend says nothing about blacks voting overwhelming for Democrats since the early ’30s, or that the GOP standard bearer in 1964 opposed the Civil Rights Act, or that his party embraced the Southern Strategy after its passage, or that a significant political realignment took place in the ’60s (such that Lincoln would no longer recognize the party), or that his party cannot currently seem to garner any more than 10 percent of the African American vote (4 percent if you’re John McCain), or that Republicans currently try as hard as they can to depress minority voting through voter ID laws and redistricting and polling place shenanigans. My friend’s answer: Dems have addicted blacks to welfare so they can keep their votes. Seriously, that’s what he says. His argument implies, of course, that blacks are too lazy to stand on their own two feet or not intelligent enough to understand where their best interests lay.

      Republicans are so defensive on the issue of race these days that they have fooled themselves into thinking that up is down, that black is white, and that Democrats are the “real racists.” It’s such an absurd fantasy world, it almost explains how Trump can happen.

    • Sentient Third Eye
      2:01 pm August 1, 2016 Permalink

      According to accounts, Martin Luther King, influenced by his strongly Republican father, strongly considered endorsing Nixon in 1960, but for whatever reason, Nixon snubbed him by not showing up at a scheduled meeting (or perhaps it was only a call). Soon after that snub, King endorsed Kennedy instead, and blacks have voted largely Democratic ever since. Imagine that history swung so much on one snub.

    • satcheluk
      2:04 pm August 2, 2016 Permalink

  2. Kizzy
    9:00 pm July 31, 2016 Permalink

    Stick to sports please! Stop putting your personal agenda into a sports site. If you do want to address racism, address it properly and tell how anyone can be racist, not just whitey.

    • 7mm08
      9:39 am August 1, 2016 Permalink

      So where exactly does it say that only whitey can be racist? That’s such a tired and lame argument. Would you go to a breast cancer fundraiser and start complaining that men can get prostate cancer?

  3. ThePawn
    9:15 pm July 31, 2016 Permalink

    In this country everyone is entitled to their opinion as long as it is a liberal opinion.If you disagree with liberals you are racist,hateful and stupid.

    • kjd
      7:40 am August 1, 2016 Permalink

      Totally agree with ThePawn.

    • Sentient Third Eye
      8:32 am August 1, 2016 Permalink

      As a libertarian conservative, I don’t see a candidate this year that I would trust to deliver a pizza, let alone be in charge of the nuclear football.

    • @GoCayts
      8:55 am August 1, 2016 Permalink

      As someone who is as far away from politics as possible, I can tell you that is not true. As soon as anybody who says ANYTHING about a sensitive subject, there are people saying that person is racist, hateful and stupid. I couldn’t tell you which view is considered liberal/conservative or left/right, but everybody’s opinion is wrong to somebody else.

    • 7mm08
      9:26 am August 1, 2016 Permalink

      The irony of this post. Both sides are chock-full of contrarian, ideological sheep that are more concerned with beating the other side rather than doing what’s best for the country and their fellow citizens. I don’t know how anyone can support either side in good conscience.

    • chimichanga
      1:37 pm August 1, 2016 Permalink

      Liberals can certainly be dumb, racist, etc. However far-right conservatives do seem to have a proud sense of ownership when it comes to these qualities.

  4. leon singleton
    9:45 pm July 31, 2016 Permalink

    I disagree with letting pedophile s use the little girls restroom

    • The Original WTF Guy
      9:57 pm July 31, 2016 Permalink

      Good for you, Leon. So does everyone else other than perhaps pedophiles.

    • Sentient Third Eye
      8:26 am August 1, 2016 Permalink

      The tens of millions of women who now have to legitimately fear sexual predators in the potty will cost Hillary Clinton the election. The Democratic position on this issue is perhaps the most misogynistic and anti-woman policy any political party has had in 50 years.

    • 7mm08
      9:49 am August 1, 2016 Permalink

      I think those tens millions of women have WAAAAY more to fear from “regular” guys than they do transgenders. Hell, they have way more to fear from family members, which are what most molesters are.

    • Sentient Third Eye
      9:59 am August 1, 2016 Permalink

      But the only thing a predator has to do is say “I’m transgender”, and he can’t be denied access to all the victims his heart desires. The entire purpose of HB2 in North Carolina is to stop those kinds of predators.

    • J-Dub421
      10:19 am August 1, 2016 Permalink

      Actually the entire purpose on the HB2 bill was to discriminate against LGBT people and make it okay for the North Carolina government to fire them for not being straight. People keep whining about bathrooms while ignoring the real reason the NBA took the All-Star game from Charlotte and the NCAA is threatening to remove games from the state as well. A person can now be fired in North Carolina for simply being gay and cannot sue the state, that is what the HB2 bill did.

    • chimichanga
      1:36 pm August 1, 2016 Permalink

      Well Leon, don’t use little girl’s restrooms then.

    • Megan
      1:42 pm August 1, 2016 Permalink

      J-Dub has it right. HB2 legalized discrimination. If you don’t want to serve a gay in your restaurant, if you don’t want to hire a gay, if you don’t want to sell a movie ticket to gay, you’re legally free to discriminate. It’s Jim Crow for gays.

    • Sentient Third Eye
      2:04 pm August 1, 2016 Permalink

      Anyone who opposes HB2 is a misogynist. Women don’t deserve to be treated so hatefully.

  5. sa_hunt
    10:49 pm July 31, 2016 Permalink

    Stick to sports, Liberal scum.

  6. jr
    11:43 pm July 31, 2016 Permalink

    Jon, I forgive Trump for what he says, because he isn’t in office yet. But I cant forgive liers that are in office, and someone who has made bad decisions that cost Americans their lives. Sports and Politics shouldn’t be lumped together ever, unless it is just used for a distraction of the hell that was 9/11. And yes there is a thing called terrorism which your party cant comprehend.

    • Megan
      1:43 pm August 1, 2016 Permalink

      You mean the party that killed Osama bin Laden? Yeah, okay.

  7. Taichitom
    2:38 am August 1, 2016 Permalink

    Very well written and insightful. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I am extremely saddened by the current state of our political scene, you said it best, polarized and paralyzed.

  8. Natty Daddy
    6:08 am August 1, 2016 Permalink

    Just when you think there will never be another Jonathan Miller story to skip…..

  9. davidpat
    7:14 am August 1, 2016 Permalink

    You would think we would learn from the refs? At best, they can only half right!

  10. cattycat
    7:40 am August 1, 2016 Permalink

    How is it that one can be so proud of the state we call home, but then we realize that our state is full of racist bigots? Who cannot open their minds to anything other than those that look and think like them? Thank you for a great, fair and balanced article Jonathan.

    • Sentient Third Eye
      8:23 am August 1, 2016 Permalink

      Politicians are best when they play their silly games and nothing they do really affects anyone. After all, they are just court jesters for us to laugh at. But lately our politicians don’t get the joke that they exist only for the rest of us to look down upon. Now they mistakenly think they are worthwhile as human beings and should really do things, and that makes them dangerous because government, by definition, can only make things worse. Democrat or Republican, political rape is still the same. FREEDOM only exists when the people have the ability to thrive or starve based upon their own intelligence and hard work.

  11. Piedma Schwartz
    8:16 am August 1, 2016 Permalink

    I would prefer that sports and politics be completely separate.

    • Sentient Third Eye
      8:36 am August 1, 2016 Permalink

      The truth is that 99% of the things in life have no political component to them. The current generation seems to lack the wisdom to understand that, but they will.eventually learn it, just as past generations had to.

      History is always cyclical. For example, Hans Christian Anderson parodied an era when people were afraid to speak the truth way back in 1837 with “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, yet we are repeating that kind of extreme, oppressive environment today.

    • chimichanga
      1:34 pm August 1, 2016 Permalink

      Apathy is a luxury for the fortunate.

  12. fauxbobknight
    9:09 am August 1, 2016 Permalink

    i hate political articles as much as the next guy but these comments are ridiculous. why does everyone act like people have their political beliefs and ideologies in mind when making every little decision?

    • Sentient Third Eye
      10:00 am August 1, 2016 Permalink

      Because too many of them do these days, and they should be publicly flogged for it.

  13. mccullou
    11:20 am August 1, 2016 Permalink

    It appears that few people commenting understood that the post was pointing out bias on both sides of the political divide, as inappropriate and counterproductive. There must be an age after which human beings cannot see their own biases and are doomed to steep in them and poison the air we all breathe, with them.

    • railbird
      1:29 pm August 1, 2016 Permalink

      Are you kidding? This was the most liberal-leaning and biased article that Miller has ever penned. And, by the way, all of Miller’s articles are liberal-leaning in some capacity. KSR…please do not continue to allow Miller to use this site board as a political podium. I am tired of it.

  14. chimichanga
    1:35 pm August 1, 2016 Permalink

    Railbird lacks reading comprehension. I am tired of ignorant KSR commenters, so consider us even.

  15. catdog
    1:40 pm August 1, 2016 Permalink

    JFK put a man on the moon,
    Obama, put a man in the ladies restroom.
    Now that’s Progressive!

  16. Megan
    2:08 pm August 1, 2016 Permalink

    I’ve always liked Kareem. Some things are worth speaking up for. And he’s always done it in a thoughtful, non-aggressive way. That partly explains why he’s so respected. Some people didn’t like it at the time, but Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Kareem were absolutely right, and the Supreme Court agreed: Ali broke no law and dodged no draft. But authorities nonetheless denied him his livelihood for three years. When justice demands, more athletes need to speak up. More people need to be heard.