The scene at the White House on Monday was, like everything in Washington in 2019, both awkward and fascinating.
The Washington Nationals — most of them, anyway — had gathered en masse to receive the congratulations of their president for winning the World Series. That president was in his purest element, his most beloved role: that of benevolent casino greeter, welcoming one and all to admire his great, great establishment. In the course of the ceremony, the Nats’ Kurt Suzuki stepped to the podium, donned a MAGA hat, and accepted an incredibly strange grope-from-behind from President Trump as the team applauded and the base swooned.
Let’s call it right there: Suzuki’s appearance marks the official time of death of the sorry phrase “stick to sports.” Nobody’s sticking to sports anymore. Moreover, nobody should. Like leather helmets, two-handed set shots and TV broadcasts that didn’t show the score onscreen, “stick to sports” is a relic of an earlier era, a more naive and unconnected time.
To be clear: there’s nothing inherently wrong with Suzuki’s decision to plant himself firmly in the Trump camp, any more than there’s nothing inherently wrong with teammates like Sean Doolittle skipping the White House event. Long as you understand that expressing your beliefs comes with inevitable blowback, express away.
What is wrong is conservatives’ assumption that the intersection of politics and sports is some new invention, yet another whiny complaint whipped up by those poor butthurt libs and tender little snowflake millennials. Sports have always been political, from the ancient Olympic Games through integration and right on up to Trump’s impending visit to LSU-Bama on Saturday.
Military flyovers? Political. National anthem played before games? Political. Presidents throwing out the first pitch? Political. Heartwarming troop reunions? Political. Deciding where to site a new stadium? Political. Rooting for (or against) a team based on the city they’re from? Political, political, all so very political.
“Stick to sports” is the kind of tired line certain fans trot out when they’re happy with how things are, and don’t want others disturbing the status quo and infringing on their good time. It’s an inherently lower-case-c conservative mindset, the idea that things are fine for me, so please stop causing problems.
Granted, there are go-along-to-get-along fans who just want to watch a ballgame, who see sports as a reprieve from what seems like an unending tide of toxic political garbage in every possible medium. I’m not going to lie — as someone who has to spend my professional life up to my scalp in social media, I envy the people who can just unplug. But we’re in an era of unprecedented us-vs.-them, with-us-or-against-us division that’s actively fostered by the White House and reflected by the media, and naturally that’s spilling over into every corner of our lives. Wherever our phones are, there too is outrage.
What’s interesting is that sports fans, more than most Americans, are already familiar with that dynamic and seem to exist within it just fine. Fans of a winning team have no problem with fans of a losing team demanding change in their dysfunctional operations. Nobody shames Jets fans for not “sticking to losing,” although the team appears hellbent on doing just that.
But the healthy rivalry ends outside the stadium walls. When a player expresses an opinion out of step with prevailing norms, or a journalist advances the idea that hey, maybe our sport could be a little more open to a more diverse fanbase, or anybody connected to sports ventures into a realm that has nothing to do with wins and losses, then insults and spluttering rage start flying like regular-season home run balls, fast, constant and unrelenting.
That’s why I was so glad to see Suzuki don that ballcap. The praise that moment drew marked the final, unequivocal acknowledgement that almost everyone is fine with some form of politics in their sports. Sure, we’d all prefer to hear players and media hew to political views that align with our own, but then I’d also prefer to see every Atlanta team win a championship, and how likely do you think it is that either of those is happening?
Suzuki’s move was the great equalizer. We’re all biased in one way or another, so let’s just own it. Fans, admirers and, yes, the media can’t praise progressive athletes for standing up for their beliefs and then crap on Suzuki for showing his. You can’t wail about Steve Kerr or Gregg Popovich taking social stands, then laud Suzuki and his teammates for praising the Trump administration. Despite what a very loud contingent of America wants, sports media can’t just Stick to Sports when the president is showing up looking for applause at games all over the country.
And if you’re one of those uncommitted souls who doesn’t like any politics in your sports, I’ve got some very bad news for you … in this hyperconnected world, the political and the personal aren’t untangling anytime soon. It’s the devil’s bargain of having the entire world in your hand — you get the entirety of the world in all its messy, infuriating glory.
On the plus side, at least the games themselves still go on without politics venturing inside the foul lines. Yet.
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