If athletes want to express themselves politically, they should do it in a way that has meaning and depth

Ever since Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a black power salute at the Mexico City Summer Olympics in 1968, there has been a debate about the place of political statements in sports.

Football player Colin Kaepernick engaged in protest by taking a knee in the San Francisco 49ers final preseason game in 2016. This year, despite the obvious lack of professional sports on a reasonable scale, players, fans, owners, advertisers, and corporate sponsors are concluding that players’ political statements belong on the field. They do not.

Just Play the Game

Athletes are on the court, field, ice, or pitch to play a game and to play it as hard and well as they can. They are free to have political views and to share them with fans in interviews, on social media, and in their own endorsements. They can express their opinions to their colleagues, as many people do in the workplace.

There is, however, no reason to make shallow statements during game play. These statements — shunning the anthem or emblazoning slogans on jerseys — are not explained. They are even less than the visible equivalent of sound bites. Viewers are left to speculate about players’ views based on what the athletes signal.

As sports hobble back from coronavirus delays, it seems political statements from players have become the norm. The NBA has agreed to allow players to have political statements instead of their names embroidered on their jerseys. The Washington Redskins and the Edmonton Eskimos are changing their names, and the Cleveland Indians are considering the same.

While the WNBA already suffers low ratings, before a recent game, players from both teams walked off the court during the national anthem. Rather than empowering athletes, fans, or the special interest groups that court their favor, this type of activism is problematic.

Fans watch sports to enjoy the competitive spirit, to root en masse for their teams, and to be entertained, transported for release. Athletes advertising their political messaging on the field is as disconcerting and jarring for fans as it would be for Natalie Portman to demand that she be allowed to wear her political statement cape while playing Queen Amidala. It’s just not what viewers are tuning in for, and they shouldn’t be forced to consume players’ political statements.

Fans can always seek out athletes’ interviews to learn more about their positions, but during game play, it’s merely an imposition. Words emblazoned on the back of a jersey will do more to ostracize dissenters than to change anyone’s mind.

Power of Peer Pressure

These messages affect more than fans and advertisers. They undoubtedly influence other players too. Would players who support an alternate view, or who have no political leanings, feel comfortable standing against star players by advocating for a different slogan, or no slogan, and simply wearing their own names on their jerseys? Would rookie players, fresh out of school, feel OK about opting to represent themselves and their families as opposed to a league-sanctioned political message?

The NBA has approved the following slogans for players to display: Black Lives Matter, Say Their Names, Vote, I Can’t Breathe, Justice, Peace, Equality, Freedom, Enough, Power to the People, Justice Now, Say Her Name, Sí Se Puede (Yes We Can), Liberation, See Us, Hear Us, Respect Us, Love Us, Listen, Listen to Us, Stand Up, Ally, Anti-Racist, I Am A Man, Speak Up, How Many More, Group Economics, Education Reform, and Mentor.

While some of these don’t seem to make any sense, or lack enough specificity to have any meaning — Ally to what cause? Mentor to whom? Reform what about education? How many more what? — others are simply absurd in the context of professional sports. “See us” indicates the men we are watching on TV are not visible. “Hear us” negates the fact that the sound of rubber on parquet is synonymous with basketball.

Others are direct progressive political statements, such as Sí Se Puede, the Cesar Chavez quote that became Barack Obama’s campaign slogan, and Black Lives Matter, which is a controversial political movement despite so many Americans’ unwillingness to say so.

Notably missing are some political slogans that would give voice to conservative players’ sentiments, such as Live Free or Die, My Country Do or Die, or even Make America Great Again. The NBA is not comfortable letting players get behind these statements. Also not present is any statement opposing the Chinese communist government’s ongoing annexation of Hong Kong, or one that agitates for fair labor conditions at the factories where NBA gear is made.

No More Political Messaging

Sports leagues should disallow in-game political messaging because in addition to irritating people who just want to enjoy the game free from politics, the influence of players is strong enough that those around them could see the slogan or nonverbal activism and adopt it themselves without knowing what they are doing or why.

Just as fans want to imitate their favorite players’ haircuts, shoes, and clothes, they will also want to take up athletes’ political messages. Fans don’t always understand the huge role that owners, advertisers, and corporate interests have played in crafting those slogans.

If players want to express themselves politically, they should, and they should do it in a way that has meaning and depth. Off the field, athletes should share why they support the causes they do, instead of virtue-signaling through slogans and walkouts. To fans and teammates, this messaging is nothing more than propaganda.