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Separation of Sport And State? Even “Dumb” Athletes Get Us Talking

by Jack Bowen


The Olympics, gun control, The Super Bowl, the current administration, all provide an opportunity for athletes to do something that’s become increasingly controversial: get political. 

While not a new phenomenon, sports figures seem to be talking politics more than ever.  And yet, as various surveys show, Americans want to keep athletes off the political stage.  But it’s hard to know just what it is about being good at sports that should preclude one from voicing an opinion on politics.  That actually seems un-American.

No doubt, our ability to discuss politics civilly as of late has diminished.  A big part of the problem in discourse concerning politics is that it’s overtly emotional.  We’re just wired that way.  Thus, the dinner party guidelines from etiquette experts suggesting we refrain from discussing politics and instead stick to the more banal “talk about the weather,” or sports.  But now sports itself has become overtly politicized, causing the line between sports and politics to blur.  So this sheds light on whether we should be talking politics at the dinner table (note: I think we should); but it still leaves us wondering why sports stars should refrain from doing so publicly.

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The issue itself has become politicized.  Conservative author and pundit Dinesh D’Souza recently tweeted, “Athletes, like actors, are some of the dumbest people on the planet & have little to contribute to any debate over ideas;” a tweet liked by over 8,000 of his followers.  Despite the broad generalization, being “dumb” doesn’t preclude someone from participating in civil discourse.  And I happen to know D’Souza: he’s exceptionally intelligent and I’d love to (and hope to) engage in some civil discourse about just what he means here.  

On the same day as D’Souza’s tweet, FOX News journalist, Laura Ingraham, took NBA star LeBron James to task for talking politics.  She criticized him as being ignorant and for using “like,” and opined, “It’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball.”  She then admonished him to, “shut up and dribble.”  Ingraham here commits a grave reasoning error known as an ad hom attack: she condemns the person and not what’s most important, namely, the argument.  Worse, she condemns every person in a single profession, always.

Here, one can’t help but reference the best-known defense of free speech, provided by philosopher John Stuart Mill.  In short, silencing any expression of ideas results in one of two undesirable outcomes.  Either the particular idea is wrong (i.e., “dumb”), in which case we lose a chance to clarify the truth in the face of error.  Or, the idea is true and we should clearly exchange truth for error.  Either way, Mill remarks, shunning the expression of ideas robs the human race of something deeply valuable.

I personally see this increase in social and political discourse as a benefit.  It can motivate an otherwise politically apathetic fan to become politically engaged. 

In my own philosophy classes, I find sports serves as an ideal catalyst for engaging young students in challenging, heady topics—topics involving justice, fairness, compassion, and various other abstract issues which frame important, big-picture ideas.

In the sports world, current catalysts abound for political engagement.  The Eagles aren’t going to the White House for the annual Super Bowl visit?  Let’s look into that.  Warriors Coach Steve Kerr has weighed in on gun control?  Good chance to re-consider the Second Amendment.  All-Star pitcher Curt Shilling tweeted for four consecutive hours about evolution?  What does the theory of Natural Selection and Evolution actually say (even with Shilling getting the facts of evolution wrong)?  Colin Kaepernick, et. al. kneel during the Anthem to protest injustice and inequality (and, interestingly, many soldiers support them)?  Where’s the inequality (and why do soldiers support this)?  And Olympic skater Adam Rippon refuses a meeting with Vice President Pence, affording us the opportunity to look deeper into gay rights as well as what the current Vice President actually stands for.

These words and actions are all great segues into important issues sports fans may not otherwise consider.  Not to mention the millions of youth who idolize sports stars: what better way to demonstrate how one can be both an athlete and a concerned citizen.  As Plato wrote, the mere athlete becomes “too much of a savage,” while the “mind of the scholar is soft and weak”—the ideal citizen, then, is the scholar-athlete

Credit: SFGate Credit: SFGate

Along with this idolatry, though, comes the flip side of the ad hom attack, what I call the ad hom defense.  Certainly, celebrity status should not automatically afford someone intellectual, political clout.  Yet, starry-eyed humans often fall into that trap, having seen athletes (and movie stars) on the Big Stage, assuming we should then accept their ideas as necessarily informed and cogent.  That’s the great thing about logic and proper discourse: it’s available to everyone, to think clearly, or not.

No doubt, this sort of discourse ruins the aesthetics for many sports fans, much in the way people decry a singer waxing political at a music concert.  But this isn’t a question of aesthetics.  It’s a question of ethics, and about discourse: civil discourse.  It’s all somewhat ironic: sports fans are cautioned to avoid politics at various locales because it’s all so emotionally wrought.  And yet that’s just what a sports fan is: a fanatic—“filled with excessive and single-minded zeal.”  If we can add “civil” to the zeal and use sports as a springboard for civil zeal-filled discourse, then we can embody Mill’s hope for the human race, all the while fanatically cheering our team to victory.

Jack is the author of 4 books, including his latest (co-authored), Sport, Ethics, and Leadership (July, 2017).  His other books include San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and Amazon Top-500 selection, The Dream Weaver and, If You Can Read This, featured in the New York Times, USA Today, and NPR. Jack has coached water polo at Menlo School for the past 18 years where they have won the league championships 16 times. Finally, he spoke at TEDxStanford in 2017 on the topic of awe.  Jack graduated from Stanford University with Honors in Human Biology and earned his Masters Degree in philosophy, graduating summa cum laude.

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