The All-Too-Wide World of Sports

As summer slowly fades into to autumn, baseball just as inevitably gives way to football, with dreams of a mid-winter night’s basketball game to follow, and then the eternal promise of baseball’s spring training and another turn of the sporting globe. Alas, these days none of it offers any respite from all that awful politics that keeps going on.
The upcoming Labor Day weekend has a full slate of college football games, including such season-making contests as the top-ranked University of Alabama’s “Crimson Tide” against Southern California’s unranked but perennially tough “Trojans,” and the University of Oklahoma’s third-ranked Sooners knocking heads with a dangerous and 15th-ranked University of Houston squad, but so far the big football story this season has been some second-string quarterback on some second-tier National Football League team refusing to stand for the national anthem. As we scan through the AM radio offerings during our daily chores he’s being talked about on both the sports talk and political talk stations, and all of the more respectable sports and political media have been equally attentive, so by now it’s unlikely that any American hasn’t yet heard of The San Francisco Forty-Niners’ Colin Kaepernick.
Although we no longer pay much attention to professional football we vaguely recalled the name from a Sports Illustrated cover a few years back, when he was reportedly tearing up the league about being touted as a star, but apparently he has since declined to second-string status on a team in a similar slide, and we can’t recall him being mentioned until the recent brouhaha. The biracial and multi-million-dollar-compensated Kaepernick says he won’t stand for the national anthem of a country that oppresses its black citizens by allowing police to indiscriminately execute them, even though he’s hard-pressed to show how that’s actually happening, and he’s also taken to wearing socks that depict police officers as pigs. So far as we can tell the general public’s reaction has been that our oppressive country does grant him the right to express such idiotic opinions, but that it will exercise the same right to say that he’s an overpaid idiot.
That’s how these politicized sports brouhahas always turn out, yet they keep occurring nonetheless. Sometimes they involve a homosexual athlete, or a transgendered one, or one with some similarly fashionable predilection, but usually it’s something to do with race, sometimes even with Asians, and of in the case of falsely-accused lacrosse teams there are also occasionally class issues. Unless it’s Tim Tebow being criticized for some on-field Christian gesture or a cable network’s commentator getting fired for politically incorrect “tweets” or a rare college basketball coach wondering why the hell the president is on the same network making his bracket predictions, it’s almost always someone taking some trendy stand that all the trendy pundits consider very brave, and which the general sporting public lustily boos.
We can’t see how it’s good for business, but the sports leagues and the networks that bring them to the general public seem to relish the same stupid controversies. The National Football League was once the last bastion of unabashed old-fashioned American machismo, and we well remember the days of The Dallas Cowboys’ when plaid-fedora-topped Tom Landry was prowling the sidelines and Roger “Captain America” Staubach was quarterbacking “America’s Team,” but these days the league has its players playing in pink shoes, and celebrating the drafting of an undersized but homosexual linebacker, and standing by an employee who sits through the national anthem because of unspecified murders by police, but prohibits the current sorry iteration of the Cowboys from wearing stickers on their helmets to honor the very specific policemen in their city who had been murdered in the line of duty. By late fall the National Basketball League will be back in the business of protesting North Carolina’s law against creepy men hanging out in women’s restrooms, and probably celebrating its latest diverse draftees, and otherwise taking brave stands on various trendy causes, and probably fining one of their up-from-the-streets employees who predictably “tweets” a dissenting opinion.
More careful observers of professional football than ourselves are speculating that Kaepernick’s bold stand for social justice is actually a cynically shrewd ploy to protect his sizable fortune, the theory being that he’s so expensive from the glory days when he signed his contract that the team can’t afford to risk a big injury payout if they send him in as a mere second stringer, so he’s giving himself a case that he was cut due to his bold stand for social justice. This seems plausible enough, although we don’t follow professional football closely to have any strongly held opinion, but such bottom-line calculations can’t plausibly explain why so much of the entire sports industry seems to have gone similarly crazy. Most paying sports fans want to watch good game far away from the annoying distractions of politics, preferably somewhere deep within the last bastions of old-fashioned American machismo, and we can’t see how it’s good business to offer them a bunch of wimpy anti-Americanism.
Already the networks that broadcast these company’s offerings are seeing declines in their fortunes, especially the for-pay Entertainment and Sports Network that has lately dominated sports but is now seeing its increasingly obsolete cable business model dissolve, and one wonders why they’re sticking with those trendy causes that the general sports public so lustily boos. Our best guess is that all of them, that tattooed Kaepernick fellow included, share the same longing that everyone who has prospered in entertainment and sports has to be taken seriously as intellectual types. The easiest way to do this is always to champion some trendy cause that all the trendy pundits are also championing, then take the lusty boos of the general public as proof that you were right all along, and most of your entertainment and sports celebrities are intellectually and temperamentally incapable of seeking out any other way than the easy one.
Which is not to say that these people of extravagant gifts of limited social utility shouldn’t be denied their rights of speech, or that they won’t occasionally have something of interest to say. One of the more memorable moments of the past Olympics was when a Second Lieutenant in the Army Reserves with the less familiar name of Sam Kendricks stopped halfway in his run toward to individual glory in the  pole vaulting finals to stand at attention for a national anthem that was playing somewhere in the arena, looking around awkwardly for a flag to address, then picked up his pole and went on to win a gold medal. This strikes us as a more eloquent political statement than the likes of that Kaepernick fellow will ever make, albeit a much less lucrative one, and it  reminds us of the many other times when sports so well expressed the best of both masculinity and America. We recall some worthy sports protests against America’s imperfections, too, but that was back in a time when they were more easily explained and weren’t so trendy and required real courage.
There’s still plenty of baseball left, with The New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals still holding out hope for play off slots, and down here in the heart of America the Wichita Wingnuts head into their final regular season home stand with a comfortable lead in the southern division of the Double-A American Association, with no race, class, or gender issues to speak of, and those OU Sooners look good enough to keep us distracted through college football and into the Wichita State University Wheatshockers start of  another promising basketball season, and though winter will no doubt come there will just as surely be another spring training. All that politics  stuff will inevitably intrude, but we’ll try to enjoy the games.

— Bud Norman