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Home / Articles / Columnists / Sports Feature /  Sports and Politics no Stragers to Each Other
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Friday, November 3,2017

Sports and Politics no Stragers to Each Other

By Mark Tudino  

Unless you’ve been living under a rock – or visiting outer space – for the last year or so, every sports fan is painfully aware of the on-going controversy involving the NFL, its players, and certain members of our political class. It began with a simple premise (or so most thought), as certain players on some teams began kneeling during the playing of our national anthem. It wasn’t supposed to be that controversial, though in retrospect it’s hard to see how it could not be so. Now, every person from every political quarter has weighed in with their perspective, doing what a friend of mine’s social studies teacher once described as ”pooling our collective ignorance.” But if you think it’s horrible that sports and politics have found themselves at this confusing intersection once again, fear not loyal reader; your loyal scribe is here to tell you this is not the first – nor probably the last – time it will happen.

One only need to look back to last year, to the death of one of sport’s most beloved athletes, to see how times and attitudes can change. In 1967, there was no more controversial, no more loved or hated athlete than Muhammad Ali. In 1964, right after winning the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston, Ali announced to the world he’d converted to the Nation of Islam and that he was now and forever to be known by his new, Muslim name. Three years later, when he refused induction into the Army, the powers that be stripped him of his title, suspended him from fighting, and essentially turned him into a sports pariah. Fast forward to 1996. Guess who was chosen to light the Olympic flame in Atlanta – symbolic of the Olympic ideal of fairness, courage and civility? That’s right, same man. Which goes to show you how attitudes can change. Ali hadn’t changed (though in later interviews he admitted some regret over his choice of rhetoric), but the nation around him had changed.

One year after Ali’s refusal of induction, U.S. sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos protested by holding up black fists during the national anthem, while standing barefoot on the winner’s podium. In 1972, the U.S. men’s basketball team lost the Olympic gold medal game to the Soviets, largely because international basketball officials decided to reinvent the rules of the game on the spot.

In Los Angeles, during the 1976 baseball season, Dodgers outfielder Rick Monday forever endeared himself to a generation of fans by preventing protesters from burning an American flag after they had made their way onto the field.

Which is to say there are countless other episodes, both foreign and domestic, when the political realities of our world have migrated to the sports arena. What’s happening to the NFL is not unique and, eventually, this too shall pass. After it does, whatever your position, I hope we emulate the NHL after it concludes a playoff series, and we remember to shake hands with our opponents.


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