Most sports figures are reluctant to address social or political issues publicly. No so with sportswriters. Four of them did just that yesterday at the Montclair Literary Festival panel Sports and Social Protest. Their discussion turned out to be a comparative analysis of sports leagues and their players’ willingness to use their position as a platform.
And the leader is the NBA. Jay Schreiber, deputy sports editor of the New York Times, called the NBA “the MSNBC of sports.” Nobody disagreed with that. Since the NBA and the NFL are both African-American majority sports leagues, there was a lot of comparison between the two. Colin Kaepernick aside, NFL players are much more reluctant to speak out on issues.
Filip Bondy, who has had a 40-year career as a sportswriter at the New York Daily News and the New York Times, talked about how social protest by athletes was common in the 60’s, what he called the “Ali era.” He suggested that it stopped as more money came into sports, but has returned of late. “It used to be athletes were afraid to speak because of the money. Now they have so much money they don’t care.”
Bondy suggested that the NBA has a tradition of liberalism that goes back to the Democratic Jewish owners of the 50’s and 60’s as opposed to the NFL where the owners are ‘like a country club.” The NBA has taken a stand against gun violence and supported gun control. It also pulled its all-star game out of North Carolina after that state’s legislators passed the so-called “bathroom bill” that discriminated against transgender people.
Jerry Barca, an author and film producer who has worked on ESPN’s “30 for 30,” talked about how in comparison to the NFL, the NBA is an open league. You can talk to the players daily, rather than just on “media days” like the NFL. “The players know they are the product,” Barca quipped, noting that Donald Sterling, former owner of the San Diego franchise, is no longer an owner because of the players.
Barca also pointed out that in the NBA it is the league’s best players and most visible personalities, guys like LaBron James and Steph Curry, who lead the way in addressing social issues, something that makes other players less reluctant to do so and something that hasn’t happened in the NFL.
Schreiber called San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich “the most interesting critic Trump has.” Why? Because he’s a white professional sports coach, works in Texas and has a military background. He has spoken out repeatedly and passionately about Trump’s immigration policies and comments about immigrants.
As for baseball, a sport that is primarily white and Latin, Mike Freeman, who has covered the NFL for numerous newspapers and broadcast outlets, said “those guys say nothing.” Bondy said he has been trying for years to get a member of the Cleveland Indians to comments on the Chief Wahoo logo. With no success.
Los Angeles Dodger Adrian Gonzalez did choose not to stay in a Trump hotel during the playoffs in Chicago last year. And on the other side of the ledger, two white conservative Chicago Cubs pitchers, Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, didn’t turn up for a visit to the Obama White House after they won the World Series. There are 5 or 6 New England Patriots who have announced they aren’t going to the Trump White House, according to Freeman. Two are no longer with the team. This is a team whose leader Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick are avid Trump backers.
Hockey players didn’t even rate a mention at the panel. But soccer players did. Soccer is a sport with a lot of ethnic players. But it is white American team captain Michael Bradley who has led to way in denouncing Trump’s immigrant policies. So has the president of U.S. Soccer Sunil Gulati. Those immigration policies have placed in jeopardy the bid by U.S. soccer to host the 2026 World Cup as well as Los Angeles’ bid to host the 2024 Olympics. The U.S. women’s soccer team has led a very public fight for equal treatment, as has the U.S. women’s hockey team.
The only question that stumped this talkative panel of sportswriters was being asked who in sports they found to be inspirational. It took a minute but they came up with a good answer: Serena Williams.