11 Times Sports and Politics Merged to Take Us out of Our Comfort Zones

Laura Depta@lauradeptaFeatured ColumnistAugust 31, 2016

11 Times Sports and Politics Merged to Take Us out of Our Comfort Zones

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem at a preseason NFL game and said, "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," per Steve Wyche of NFL Media. 

    Kaepernick's action has spawned discussion and, of course, differing opinions in the sports world and beyond. Those aware of his story might find themselves outside their comfort zone, confronted with issues of race, patriotism, activism and more. 

    Sports, like other forms of entertainment, are inevitably linked to social and political issues. In this—an election year—many have become close to one and the same. The following are recent illustrations of the intersection of sports and the issues that concern a society—whether they are social, political or both. 

    These are divisive issues (i.e., steering people beyond what is comfortable into deeper discussions). Those in sports have either been impacted or proactively joined the conversation.   

    Outside the comfort zone is where change happens. ESPN's Bomani Jones wrote for The Undefeated: "Protests that don’t offend aren’t worth the effort. The ones that do are the ones that can change the world."

NC Bathroom Bill and Transgender Athletes

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    In March, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory signed into law a bill that requires transgender individuals to use restrooms that correspond with the sex on their birth certificates. The "bathroom bill," as it has been called, has highlighted a divisive issue in America, an issue that touches sports. 

    For instance, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made the call in July to move the league's 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans.

    Transgender athletes have been at the forefront of sports consciousness as well. The International Olympic Committee adopted new transgender guidelines in 2016 allowing athletes to compete without gender reassignment surgery.

    According to  of Rolling Stone, no openly transgender athletes competed in the Rio Olympic Games, but "… according to IOC meeting records, two closeted transgender athletes will be competing in August. The nationalities of the transgender athletes were not revealed."

    Nike also released a groundbreaking new ad featuring Team USA duathlete Chris Mosier. Mosier's is not an Olympic sport, but he appeared in ESPN The Magazine's "Body Issue" and was the first transgender athlete to be featured

Sexism in Olympic Coverage

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    The way in which women are presented by the media bleeds into sports as well. Patricia Garcia of Vogue wrote: "Women have always faced sexist media coverage, whether they're on their way to win an Oscar or on the campaign trail running for president. Even the world's greatest athletes are not spared."

    Several instances of Olympic media coverage were deemed overtly sexist. For example, when Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu won gold in the 400-meter individual medley, NBC's Dan Hicks suggested her husband and coach was "the man responsible" for her achievement.

    Elsewhere, Corey Cogdell-Unrein won a gold medal in women's trap shooting. The Chicago Tribune tweeted, "Wife of a Bears' lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics."

    NBC's Rowdy Gaines supplied a bit of redemption for his profession when he said of American swimmer Katie Ledecky, per Madison Park of CNN.com: "A lot of people think she swims like a man. She swims like Katie Ledecky, for crying out loud."

    Still, the legacy of the Rio Games will be—among other things—its perpetuation of this ongoing societal issue.

USWNT Equal Pay

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Americans hear politicians talk about equal pay for women, but they also hear athletes talk about it.

    In March, tennis superstar Novak Djokovic sparked controversy when he suggested women should not receive equal prize money because their sport draws fewer fans than the men's game.   

    Elsewhere, five members of the U.S. women's national soccer team filed a wage-discrimination action against U.S. Soccer. According to ESPN.com news services (via espnW.com), the action claims "that despite the women's team generating nearly $20 million more revenue last year than the U.S. men's team, the women are paid about a quarter of what the men earn."

    The U.S. Soccer Federation is fighting the discrimination claims, and the women's team is bound by its current collective bargaining agreement, set to expire in December. In the meantime, players are wearing T-shirts with an "Equal Play Equal Pay" slogan in an attempt to raise awareness. 

    Ahead of the Olympic Games, midfielder Megan Rapinoe said,:"We would prefer not to have to deal with this. But we're not going to shy away from it, either," per Andrew Das of the New York Times.

Anthony, James, Wade and Paul Speak at the ESPYs

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    Kevin Winter/Getty Images

    Gun violence, police brutality and race relations have—together and separately—become critical issues in America.

    In July, two black men—Philando Castile and Alton Sterling—were shot and killed by police officers in separate incidents just a day apart.

    Shortly afterward, five police officers were killed in a sniper attack in Dallas, an attack Dallas Police Chief David O. Brown described as retaliation, per the New York Times.

    The story bled into sports at the ESPY Awards when Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks, LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Dwyane Wade of the Chicago Bulls and Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers spoke about the recent violence. 

    Wade said, per Melissa Chan of Time, "The racial profiling has to stop. The shoot-to-kill mentality has to stop. Not seeing the value of black and brown bodies has to stop. But also, the retaliation has to stop. The endless gun violence in places like Chicago, Dallas, not to mention Orlando, it has to stop. Enough. Enough is enough."

    Wade also spoke specifically about athletes stepping out of their comfort zones to bring awareness to these critical social issues. He said, per Chan, "It won't always be convenient. It won't always be comfortable. But it is necessary."

Nykea Aldridge and Trump's Tweet

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    David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

    Presidential elections often take people outside their comfort zones, and 2016 has been no exception. Instances of gun violence—and candidates' reactions to them—have been top of mind. The sports world has been affected and gotten involved as well.

    For instance, Chicago Bulls guard Dwyane Wade has spoken out against gun violence in America—notably, at the ESPY Awards in July. In August, Wade's cousin, Nykea Aldridge, was shot and killed in Chicago.

    What began as a tragic death turned political when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted, "Dwayne Wade's cousin was just shot and killed walking her baby in Chicago. Just what I have been saying. African-Americans will VOTE TRUMP!" per Eugene Scott and Jeremy Diamond of CNN.com. (Trump later corrected the misspelling in Wade's name.)

    Actor Don Cheadle replied to Trump's tweet with the following, per the World Entertainment News Network (via WJLA.com): "You are truly a POS," and, "Sorry. I misspelled 'die in a grease fire.'"

WNBA and the Black Lives Matter Movement

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    In July, Minnesota Lynx players spoke about gun violence at a pregame press conference and wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts during warm-ups. Four off-duty Minneapolis police officers working the game walked out.

    Later, the WNBA levied fines against three teams and involved players for wearing plain black warm-up shirts—a violation of the league's uniform policy. WNBA President Lisa Borders said, per Doug Feinberg of the Associated Press, "We are proud of WNBA players' engagement and passionate advocacy for non-violent solutions to difficult social issues but expect them to comply with the league's uniform guidelines."

    Tina Charles of the New York Liberty said, "I have no problem wearing this shirt inside out for the rest of the season until we are able to have the WNBA support us," per Feinberg.

    New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony also expressed his support for the players, saying, "I don't see why there would be a reason for those ladies to get fined," per Feinberg. 

    The league ultimately rescinded the fines and pledged support for its players.

Islam El Shehaby Refuses Handshake or Bow

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    Markus Schreiber/Associated Press

    Countries from across the globe come together to compete at the Olympic Games, and sometimes, relations between those countries become a discussion topic. 

    During the judo competition in Rio, Egypt's Islam El Shehaby refused to bow or shake the hand of Israel's Or Sasson after Sasson defeated him.  

    El Shehaby's refusal was more than an act of poor sportsmanship. Relations between Egypt and Israel have been historically strained, and according to the Associated Press (via NBCOlympics.com), "Islam El Shehaby, an ultraconservative Salafi Muslim, had come under pressure before the Games from Islamist-leaning and nationalist voices in Egypt to withdraw from the first-round heavyweight bout against Or Sasson."

    According to Joshua Berlinger of CNN, the Egyptian Judo Federation denied El Shehaby was punished, but the IOC claimed it received word he was sent home by Egypt's National Olympic Committee.

    Meanwhile, gymnasts Lee Eun-ju of South Korea and Hong Un-jong of North Korea took a selfie together, illustrating the power of the Olympic Games to bridge conflict.

Political Endorsements from Sports Figures

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    As with many major elections, celebrity and athlete endorsements have been big stories during the 2016 presidential race.

    In February, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France endorsed U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump and received immediate backlash. France told the Associated Press, "I was, frankly, very surprised, that my diversity efforts for my whole career would have been called into question over this, in my view, a routine endorsement."

    Indeed, what does it mean for a representative of a team, league or sports organization to endorse a candidate? Though his was a personal decision, France's name is associated with NASCAR, a highly visible entity.

    Trump has also received endorsements from Bobby Knight and Curt Schilling, while democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's sports supporters include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Billie Jean King.  

    What do the personal political beliefs of sports figures mean for their fans—if anything? It's a tough question, but one fans have likely asked themselves during this election cycle. 

Economic Crisis in Brazil

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    There has been perhaps no better example of sports and politics merging in 2016 than the events in Rio de Janeiro. Sports fans love the Olympic Games and its spirit, but Rio likely made some question what that's worth.

    The Rio Olympics came and went amid a myriad social issues in Brazil, including crime, violence, underfunded public services and impeachment proceedings against president Dilma Rousseff.

    In July, police officers held up a sign outside the Rio airport that read, "Welcome to Hell" and "Police and firefighters don't get paid, whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe," per Arwa Damon and James Masters of CNN.

    The Games put a substantial financial burden on a country already dealing with a precarious economic situation. In July, acting governor of Rio's state government Francisco Dornelles declared a state of financial disaster. A statement from his office read, "The financial crisis has brought several difficulties in essential public services and it could cause the total collapse of public security, health care, education, urban mobility and environmental management," per FoxNews.com.

    Protests broke out in Rio over the cost of the Games as the Olympic torch arrived in early August.

Colin Kaepernick Refuses to Stand for the National Anthem

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    San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick ignited a firestorm of controversy when he refused to stand for the national anthem at a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers.

    After the game, Kaepernick explained, "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," per Steve Wyche of NFL Media.

    Opinions from in and out of sports have varied heavily on Kaepernick's action. New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees, for instance, acknowledged Kaepernick's right to act but disagreed with his particular protest. Per Mike Triplett of ESPN.com, Brees said, "He can speak out about a very important issue. But there's plenty of other ways that you can do that in a peaceful manner that doesn't involve being disrespectful to the American flag."

    Others—such as filmmaker Spike Lee—have drawn comparisons to the social activism of Muhammad Ali.

    ESPN's Bomani Jones wrote for The Undefeated:

    This is what a stand looks like. For better or worse, stands that demand people come together rarely have that effect. And contrary to popular belief, stands do not create divisions and fissures. They amplify them. The whole point of a stand is to put them on display, to ask the world to confront and examine their hypocrisies and ask why they’re on one side and not the other. Protests that don’t offend aren’t worth the effort. The ones that do are the ones that can change the world.

Cam Newton's Race Comments

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    In mid-August, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton told Zach Baron of GQ, "I don't want this to be about race, because it's not. It's not. Like, we're beyond that. As a nation."

    Newton's comment that America is "beyond" race—and the media's coverage of that comment—created an intense public reaction. 

    For instance, ESPN's Pablo Torre said on Around the Horn, "… it is very damaging to say something along the lines of we are post-racial in this country, we have gotten past that," per Christian Datoc of the Daily Caller.

    Meanwhile, Jim Weber of Awful Announcing pointed out the suspicion of some that Baron "baited" Newton into a controversial statement.

    Weber wrote:

    Newton went out of his way to avoid creating headlines in the GQ article by refusing to comment on issues such as Donald Trump and the controversial North Carolina transgender bathroom law. When asked if he believes the criticism of him is racially motivated as his teammates have claimed, Newton wasn't going to fall into the same trap twice. After all, Newton found himself in the news just this past January for saying, "I'm an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven't seen nothing that they can compare me to."

    Knowing the firestorm he would face if he called his critics racist, Newton attempted to mollify them by disingenuously saying we are "beyond" racism as a nation.