Stick to sports.
It’s a phrase often hurled at athletes, coaches and sports writers when they voice an opinion on society or politics. As if other people in the public sphere, like celebrities and musicians, are allowed to speak their minds, but sports figures are not.
The reality is that they should have every right to weigh in on the issues of the day, just as everyone else does.
Sure, sports exist for our entertainment, but also for the livelihoods of the athletes themselves. And sports are played by real people. Perhaps when we replace players with droids, we can tell them to keep their mouths shut.
Right now our country is in turmoil. We are experiencing multiple crises simultaneously.
First and foremost, we are in the midst of a global pandemic. But we are also undergoing a long overdue reckoning on race relations and police brutality, spurred on by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police department.
Many Americans are concluding that the old ways won’t do anymore. We can’t just go along and pretend things are hunky dory, when there’s too much evidence to suggest they are not.
Sports franchises, owners and other entities are finally coming around and tearing down old imagery that sends the wrong message about who we are and what we believe.
Many people have long chafed under the Mississippi state flag, with its Confederate flag iconography. Imagine being a Black athlete wanting to play football at Ole Miss, and seeing that flag flying over the stadium? What kind of message does that send about equality?
But the Mississippi state legislature recently voted to remove that image from its flag. It’s a small but significant step.
More recently, the ownership of the Washington Redskins NFL team announced that the team would no longer go by that name.
There are countless other teams, professional and amateur, whose names and logos rely on outdated racist tropes.
But let’s stop and unpack it for a moment. What is racist about a team called the Redskins, with a logo that looks like a Native American warrior?
Some have tried to argue that it lifts up Native Americans and projects them in a positive, powerful light. Well, many Native Americans have been calling for the name change for years.
It reduces Native Americans to a centuries-old racist trope based upon a European view that they are savages. It does not provide a broad or nuanced view of Native American culture, which extends well beyond the battlefield.
We as a society need to be more creative and more inclusive than to rely on racial stereotypes for our team names. As a society, we are better than that. Much better.
It’s not yet clear whether other franchises such as the Cleveland Indians or the Atlanta Braves will follow suit and change their names, though they are likely being discussed behind closed doors.
What this reflects, more than anything, is that the old ways aren’t good enough anymore.
Our society is yearning for more fairness, less discrimination, more equality.
The realm of sports does not exist in a vacuum. Not only can sports reflect our culture at large, but sometimes it can lead it.
So, when our world returns to “normal,” don’t expect it to look the same—especially in sports.
Expect there to be more teams, more athletes, more coaches and more voices calling for equality and speaking out against discrimination and bias.
And rather than dismiss their concerns or call for them to be quiet and stick to playing the game, we would all do well to stop and listen, because they just might have a point.