As a freelance writer I’m lucky enough to watch TV as I write my pieces. When I awoke on Tuesday, the ESPN commenters on the show First Take took a solemn moment to commemorate the 9/11 attacks. They mentioned that they hoped sports would be able to unify the country like it did shortly after that sad day 17 years ago. But the major news stories that they covered a short time after that suggested that sports has lost much of their unifying power because of the actions of analysts and athletes.
The first major news story concerned Colin Kaepernick. As many conservatives know by now, he was recently made the face of Nike’s new ad campaign because of his supposedly daring stand against racism by kneeling during the national anthem. Nike stock has dropped, many peopled burned their Nike gear in protest, but Nike sales have boosted as well. The endless debate over his kneeling for the anthem represents a tragic loss of that unifying factor. The national anthem was traditionally an innocuous and unifying civic ceremony where people that were old, young, black, white, rich or poor could come together and root for their team and taunt the opposing team. But that unifying factor has been lost in a political debate over claims of racism and the role of activism.
The other event was Serena Williams losing the finals of the U.S. Open in dramatic and controversial fashion. The issue surrounds a series of escalating arguments over penalties from the chair judge. After she lost the match, Williams claimed it was a result of sexism. Personally, I remember watching John McEnroe fight with the judges and receiving penalties as well, so the sexist argument seemed like a rather quick escalation of what sometimes happens in tennis. Naturally, this led to very long politically charged arguments on ESPN that left very little room for unity.
I agree that sports should be a unifying factor. After a long week of work most people just want to relax and watch a good game. But too many athletes and analysts are injecting incredibly divisive racial and tribal politics into those sports which makes even those areas contested battlefields. It is important to remember 9/11 and the unifying power of sports. But our actions should match the rhetoric by trying to avoid injecting controversial topics into a neutral space. That means that if ESPN analysts really want sports to bring us together they should have taken a break from the politics for at least one day.