Opinion: We like to pretend that sports and politics don’t mix. But they do, with sports often being the catalyst for change.

For the most part, the sports media pretend that sports and politics don’t mix.

It has to do with not wanting to alienate elements of the audience.

And also with providing a respite, a safe zone, from the national arguments over politicians and public policy.

But after the Donald Trump rally in which the president stood by while the crowd chanted “Send her back! Send her back!” about a female congresswoman whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Somalia,  ESPN radio and TV host Dan Le Batard went on the air and called BS.

Good on him.

In doing so Le Batard violated company policy that was put in place after former ESPN personality Jemele Hill got booted for getting too political on Twitter.

Breaking the network silence

Le Batard was having none of it, calling the restrictions “cowardly” and saying in part:

“So, what happened last night. This felt un-American. Basically, a chant, ‘Send her back.’ It’s not the America that my parents came to get for us … There’s a racial division in this country that’s being instigated by the president. And we here at ESPN haven’t had the stomach for that fight because Jemele (Hill) did some things on Twitter, and you saw what happened after that. Then, here, all of the sudden, nobody talks politics on anything unless we can use one of these sports figures as a meat shield in the most cowardly possible way to discuss the subject.”

He quoted from a tweet by fellow sports broadcaster Nick Wright in which he wrote: ‘I don’t talk politics on here, but this isn’t political. This is abhorrent, obviously racist, dangerous rhetoric and not calling it out makes you complicit.’ 

Le Batard goes on, saying in part:

“This isn’t about politics, it’s about race – what you’re seeing happening around here is about race being turned into politics. And we only talk about it around here when Steve Kerr or (Greg) Popovich says something. We don’t talk about what is happening unless there’s some sort of weak cowardly sports angle that we can run it through. When sports has been a place where this stuff changes.”

Effecting change


Sports often IS where this stuff changes.

Like the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball, Jackie Robinson, breaking the color barrier in 1947 and setting the stage for the rest of the country to follow suit.

Or the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which would have been dominated by Nazi propaganda were it not for the performance of African-American sprinter and long jumper Jesse Owens.

In the turbulent 1960s there was Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising gloved fists during the playing of the National Anthem at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

And boxing great Muhammad Ali’s legal challenge of the military draft during the Vietnam war.

And you know the contemporary examples.

Colin Kaepernick.

Members of the U.S. Women’s soccer team.

The role of the sports media

Not to mention the fact that the owners of professional sports franchises are often big-time participates and contributors to political campaigns. The Arizona Cardinals’ Michael Bidwill and the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Ken Kendrick are among them.

There are many examples of sports colliding with politics, and helping to effect change.

And many examples of great sports journalists leading that charge.

Sportswriter Wendell Smith of The Pittsburgh Courier waged a long, passionate campaign for Jackie Robinson.

And there are inspired, biting examples of sports mixing with politics by writers like Shirley Povich, who spent his life covering Washington, D.C., sports. The last National Football League team to integrate was the Washington Redskins.

After a loss to the Cleveland Browns, which at the time featured the great running back Jim Brown, Povich wrote:

“Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday.”

Reach Montini at [email protected]

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