Black Lives Matter

Sport as a Tool for Civil Rights: You Can’t Have it Both Ways

One of the more significant current sports stories relates to the declining number of subscribers to ESPN. The main thrust of the coverage of this decline has centered on the amount of television rights fees that sports leagues and college networks will be able to generate. Make no mistake, that impact will be significant as fewer subscribers translates into lower rights fees. 

But there is another story relating to this decline that bears mentioning. Specifically, the two primary reasons that have been given for the decline. The first is that consumption and viewing habits of consumers have been changing with increased ability to “slim down” cable packages or to simply “cut the cord” of cable completely. But it is the second reason that is the subject of this essay. Specifically, the claim that ESPN has been drifting towards a much more liberal bias in its’ reporting and features and, as a result of today’s highly polarized political climate, has been driving conservative viewers away.

Two examples in particular have been cited as proof of ESPN’s increasingly liberal bias. The first was the extensive coverage the network gave to San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s display of solidarity with the “Black Lives Matter” movement by kneeling during the national anthem. The second was a nod to transgender rights by awarding its’  “Courage” award to Caitlyn Jenner at its annual ESPY Awards. Critics cried, “Sports should be a “safe zone” from politics and social issues.  I simply want to watch the games and not be bombarded with social commentary.”

But you can’t have it both ways. That horse left the barn decades ago. One of the most important, powerful and fundamental justifications for our society’s tremendous investment in sports is precisely because it has the potential to break down barriers and push for social change and civil rights. The fact is, using sports as a vehicle to highlight civil and human rights issues is as much a part of sports as the touchdown, home run or slam-dunk.

Sports have long been looked to as a powerful example for social change, particularly as it relates to diversity and civil rights. The fundamental principles that drive progress in these areas are fairness, tolerance, cooperation and equal opportunity.  Sports is a wonderfully effective platform through which these principles can be demonstrated.

One of the most important and significant events in the history of the struggle for civil rights was Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in Major League Baseball. During a time when blacks were considered, to put it mildly, second-class citizens by many and, more bluntly, less than human by others, the sight of Robinson playing alongside white teammates, all on equal footing on the field, was both instructional and inspirational.

Sports is an enterprise where race, creed and background have, for the most part, little impact on achievement and opportunity, at least compared to many other industries and enterprises. Coaches are, above all, equal opportunity “employers” interested not in the color of a wide receiver’s skin but in whether that player is able to contribute to the team’s success on the field. Or, to put it in a civil rights context, to play off the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, coaches do not judge players by the color of their skin, but by the content of their “game”. Coaches play the best players regardless of color or creed because they want to win above all else.  Their jobs and livelihoods depend on it.

Further, athletes themselves, for the most part, are unusually tolerant and accepting of other athletes. Like coaches, athletes want to win, and a player’s color or background doesn’t make a difference if he can help in achieving that result.

The sight of athletes working together toward a common goal, sharing in the sweat, pain and sacrifice, provides a powerful example of the possibilities for tolerance, diversity and integration. It’s a vivid display of how people, regardless of background, can work together to accomplish impressive things. Seeing black athletes perform on equal footing with their white teammates sparked a light that suggested the possibility that the same could be done in many other occupations and situations.  A lot of the progress we have made as a society, whether in business or every day life, has to do with examples of racial tolerance and acceptance demonstrated through sports. When the public sees athletes working together successfully, it provides an example for others to emulate.

While there are many things about organized, elite athletics in America that are twisted and out of perspective, sports’ power and potential to advance civil and human rights issues is not one of them. Sports’ fundamental value of fair play and equal opportunity parallels the fundamental values and principles of civil and human rights. The potential to highlight and advance these values may be sports’ most important and greatest strength.

In short, you can’t get away from sports being used as a platform for civil and human rights.

That said, you can’t on one hand justify our tremendous investment in sports as an educational and character building activity and laud it’s power to advance civil and human rights when the human rights issue is one you believe in and are committed to, but then claim that sports should be “value free” when the civil rights being advocated for, in the case of Caitlyn Jenner, transgender rights, and Colin Kaepernick, in supporting Black Lives Matter, happens to be a civil right that you may not believe in.

You can’t have it both ways. A civil right is a civil right.

So feel free to cancel your ESPN subscription. But don’t whine about the need for sports to be a “safe zone” from highlighting civil and human rights issues. Civil and human rights are all about fair play and equal opportunity. The concept of fair play and equal opportunity is sports’ most powerful and important value and characteristic. It’s part of sports’ DNA.

And thank goodness for that.