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Saturday, November 12, 2016

A post-election thought on athlete speech

This has been a significant year for athlete speech--Colin Kaepernick (joined by several other players) and national-anthem protests, the opening speech by four NBA stars (LeBron, Carmelo, Wade, and Chris Paul) at the ESPY Awards, protests against police violence by several WNBA teams, and everyone taking sides in the presidential election. It is ironic that this occurs in the year Muhammad Ali, one of the most significant activist athletes, passed away.

But reactions to the election results highlight an important qualifier to discussion of speech within sports--different sports feature and express very different political attitudes and ideas. When we think of athlete speech, we must parse it by sport and even role within the sport.

Consider recent comments by coaches in different sports about the election. Two NFL coaches--Bill Belichick of the Patriots and Rex Ryan of the Bills--were high-profile Trump supporters; Trump read a letter of support from Belichick at one of his final rallies on Monday. Meanwhile, three NBA coaches--Stan Van Gundy of the Pistons, Steve Kerr of the Warriors, and Gregg Popovich of the Spurs--reacted angrily to Trump's election. Kerr spoke about the difficulty of talking to his daughters and facing his players in the wake of the misogyny and racism of the campaign. Popovich, a thoughtful and well-read guy, went with empathy--"I'm a rich white guy, and I'm sick to my stomach thinking about it. I can't imagine being a Muslim right now, or a woman, or an African American, a Hispanic, a handicapped person"--and history, stating he feared we have become Rome.

The difference is explicable. The NBA is a "player's league" and is overwhelmingly African-American, so it makes sense that coaches would be more sympathetic to the targets of Trump's rhetorical ire. Meanwhile, football coaches all fancy themselves as George Patton, so their affinity for the authoritarian Trump is understandable.

Along the same lines, there was discussion earlier this fall about the absence of anthem protests in Major League Baseball. Adam Jones of the Orioles explained that baseball is a white sport, with fewer African-American players (8.3 % of players) who are easily replaceable and thus less willing to put themselves in position to get kicked out of the game by taking unpopular stands, especially within the game.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 12, 2016 at 05:33 PM in First Amendment, Law and Politics, Sports | Permalink


I can appreciate your that the NBA has a much higher concentration of AA stars/superstars than the NFL. I would posit that for every team in which the quarterback is the star, there are as many or more in which the star player is the runningback (w.g., Adrian Peterson) or wide receiver (e.g., AJ Green). The stars in those positions tend to be AA. But still, I understand your point.

If the protesting players are gone next year, I think that will be more a reflection on how fans view the protests than the league. The NFL has generally been considered immune to cable cutting, yet it is still seeing a significant drop in viewers this year. I think that a generally negative reaction to the protests are impacting the bottom line, so the owners may decide to take action. Also, I don't think we can read too much into Kaepernick's situation, since he is not exactly a great quarterback and has not had much success on the field in the past few seasons.

I apologize if my previous post was unclear. I also do not agree with the notion that one must contribute, campaign or vote for Clinton to complain about the results of the election. Rather, my point was that I wonder if the coaches' reactions were genuine, or if they were manufactured for the purpose of keeping the loyalty of their players and fans.

Posted by: TJM | Nov 15, 2016 3:13:21 PM

Fair point about the relative racial balance in the two leagues. But it is more than just racial balance, hence my "players' league" point--there are fewer NBA players and fewer US-born white players, so the voices of those AA players are more powerful. NFL teams are more about the coaches and, on many teams, the white superstar quarterback.

One thing to watch next year is whether these protesting players are still around. Contracts in the NFL are not guaranteed, so . .. .

I disagree with the notion that one must have contributed, campaigned, or voted for Clinton to now complain about the results of the election. Many people (including many economists) believe voting is a waste of time. But that should not detract from the point of a protest.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Nov 15, 2016 6:53:12 AM

I find it hard to buy your argument about the NBA being overwhelmingly black when you seem to completely ignore this fact when it comes to the NFL. A quick Google search tells me that the NBA is about 74% black and the NFL is 67% black. This is even more important when you consider that the NFL has more teams, and each team has about 3x as many players as an NBA team (NBA has about 450 players total, while the NFL has over 1,700 total players). I don't understand why the racial makeup is relevant to the NBA but not to the NFL. Is it your position that this can be explained by every NFL coach having a Patton complex? This seems like an overly simplistic analysis.

Also, it would be interesting to know if any of the NBA coaches actually contributed or campaigned (or even voted) for Clinton. It could be that they are simply having the reaction that they think their players/fans want them to have.

Posted by: TJM | Nov 14, 2016 8:27:32 AM

Kaepernick's credibility was shot to hell when he admitted he didn't vote. https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/redskins/quarterback-colin-kaepernicks-refusal-to-vote-undermines-his-message/2016/11/12/92970d5e-a910-11e6-ba59-a7d93165c6d4_story.html

Posted by: Andrea Boyack | Nov 12, 2016 10:24:51 PM

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