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Wednesday, 03 January 2018 07:22

2017: A Watershed Year for the Intersection of Sports and Politics

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SportsPolitics 0103wrp opt(Photo: StickerGiant / Flickr)Who would have thought that in a season where he was locked out by NFL owners, didn't take a single snap, or play a single down, former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick's kneeling during the playing of the national anthem in 2016, in protest over police brutality and social injustice, would continue to resonate this year? Who would have thought that Gregg Popovich, the highly esteemed coach of the NBA's San Antonio Spurs, would become one of the most outspoken voices against the calumnies of President Donald Trump? Who could have imagined that the most resonant anti-Trump tweet of the year would come from LeBron James, the world's best and most recognized basketball player?

Those are some of the remarkable developments that marked the year in sports; a watershed year in which athletes' political activism grew exponentially. Their actions garnered pushback from the NFL's conservative billionaire owners, a Pizza magnate, conservative columnists and fans, and, from the president himself.

When LeBron James tweeted at President Trump: "U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain't going! So therefore ain't no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!", James was calling out the president for being shallow, petty, and spiteful.

LeBron's tweet responded to a tweet by Trump critical of the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors Stephen Curry. When Curry was asked whether he would attend a White House ceremony honoring the NBA Champions if they were invited. "Hopefully," Curry said, "that will inspire some change when it comes to what we tolerate in this country, what is accepted and what we turn a blind eye toward. ... I don't think us going to the White House will miraculously make everything better, but this is my opportunity to voice that."

"LeBron didn't just make statements, he acted," the Pacific Standard's Ian Hurley pointed out. "This fall he opened a grade school for at-risk kids in Akron, Ohio, his hometown, and providing any student who graduates after 2021 a free scholarship to the University of Akron."

The next day, as is his wont, Trump fired back at Curry: "Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!" And that resulted in LeBron's tweet.

Then there was Donald Trump's "son-of-a-bitch speech. The San Francisco Chronicle's Scott Ostler recently recounted: At a Friday night political rally in Huntsville, Ala., Trump said: "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He's fired. He's fired!'" Teresa Kaepernick, Colin's mother, quiet through much of the controversy tweets, "Guess that makes me a proud bitch!"

"Fourteen Sundays after NFL players held a mass protest during the national anthem in reaction to remarks by President Donald Trump, the league closed its 2017 regular season with ten players who sat, seven who knelt and one who stayed in the locker room during the pre-game performances of "The Star-Spangled Banner" before 16 games," al.com's Mark Inabinett pointed out on December 31.

While political protests by athletes are not a new phenomena – think Muhammad Ali refusing to be inducted into the military during the Vietnam War, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos' protest for human rights at the 1968 Mexico Olympics -- there were many remarkable moments in 2017 where athletes, coaches and commentators, were not afraid to speak out on critical social issues. In some respects, it was Trump's lame response to the neo-Nazi/white supremacist-initiated violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, that spurred many to act.

In an apparent stunt orchestrated by Trump, Vice-President Mike Pence walked out of a game between the Indianapolis Colts and the San Francisco 49ers, supposedly because several San Francisco players kneeled during the playing of the national anthem.

In response to North Carolina's ill-conceived anti-transgender bathroom bill, the NBA pulled its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte.

As The Pacific Standard reported, "Women's National Basketball Association players pushed the envelope of activism, and often put themselves further out on the ledge than their male counterparts, largely without similar levels of media attention. When the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks faced off in the WNBA finals the Sparks remained in the locker room during the anthem for the first four games, and even staged a walkout before a finals game, as they were subjected to boos from some fans. Elsewhere, the Seattle Storm's all-female ownership group partnered with Planned Parenthood for the 2017 season."

In September, ESPN's Jemele Hill tweeted that Trump is a "white supremacist," which White House press chief Sarah Huckabee Sanders called a "fireable offense." Hill was subsequently suspended for two weeks after more anti-Trump tweets.  

Just before the end of the baseball season, the Oakland A's Bruce Maxwell became the first baseball player to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem.

There were also occasions when fans heckled visiting teams containing people of color, by shouting "Trump. Trump. Trump," using the president's name as a racist cudgel.

In October, "a Native American high school football player took a knee during the national anthem ahead of a matchup between schools from California and Arizona," Yahoo Sports' Jason Owens recently reported. "The protesting player from California's San Pasqual Valley High School was pelted with racial epithets hurled by students at host Mayer High School in Spring Valley, Arizona." The San Pasqual Valley Unified School District took a stand: it banned "political protest from players at home and away games."

The edict also "required students and coaches to stand and remove their hats and helmets during the national anthem," Owens pointed out. A lawsuit was filed and in late December, a federal court "grant[ed] a temporary injunction allowing San Pasqual Valley students to resume protests."

Coach Gregg Popovich was quick to air his views in opposition to the intolerance and cruelty of the Trump administration several times during the year. "Usually things happen in the world and you go to work — and you got your family and you got your friends — and you do what you do," Popovich said before Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against the Warriors. "But to this day, I feel like there's a cloud, a pall, over the whole country in a paranoid, surreal sort of way. It's got nothing to do with the Democrats losing the election. It's got to do with the way one individual conducts himself. And that's embarrassing. ... It's dangerous to our institutions, and what we all stand for and what we expect the country to be."

Steve Kerr, coach of the Golden State Warriors, and Stan Van Gundy, coach of the Detroit Pistons, were also outspoken in their criticism of Trump's divisive rhetoric and toxic policies.

Popovich, a major contributor to numerous charitable organizations, ended the year advocating that the wealthy give more to those in need. When asked why charitable endeavors are important to him, he said: "Because we're rich as hell, and we don't need it all, and other people need it. Then, you're an ass if you don't give it. Pretty simple."

As for Kaepernick: For the entire year, he avoided the spotlight, made no incendiary headlines and let his actions do the talking. He stayed true to his word and gave $1 million to community-based organizations working with under-served communities, and initiated Know Your Rights Camps for at-risk youth. By the end of the year, he was named GQ magazine's Citizen of the Year, received Sports Illustrated's Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, and was given the Southern California ACLU's Eason Monroe Courageous Advocate award.