Commentary: Public Discourse at the Intersection of Politics and Sports

The political and sports worlds have many similarities.

You will find passionate fans who will support their teams — or in the case of politics — their party. You will have winners and losers. You will have prominent voices who will voice their opinions for the entire world to hear.

At the intersection of sports and politics you will find many similarities. Those similarities crossed paths once again last week when the President Trump called out Colin Kaepernick and other professional athletes for their “take a knee” political stance during the national anthem.

Trump put direct blame on NFL owners who have tolerated the behavior.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!’” President Trump said to an enthusiastic crowd in Huntsville last week at a Luther Strange senate campaign rally.

Those comments set off a political firestorm that led to protests before the slate of NFL games last weekend. The protests have been met with differing responses from NFL fans — from complete approval to vehement disgust.

One team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, has received the brunt of the animosity from disgruntled fans as almost the entire team decided not to leave the locker room until the conclusion of the anthem. The one player who did take part, Alejandro Villanueva, a former military veteran was lauded as a hero for leaving the locker room and standing in the tunnel for the anthem. He would however walk back the attention he received saying that he let down his head coach Mike Tomlin and team.

It would later surface Tomlin and his wife Kiya had held a private fundraiser in 2016 for Hillary Clinton.

The fundraiser took place last June at his home with tickets going for at a maximum price $33,400. This revelation came to a surprise to many die-hard Steeler fans who were not aware of the Tomlins’ political leanings. In fact, both Tomlin and his wife Kiya have been long time supporters of both Clinton and the Democratic Party. In the last decade, the Tomlins have donated more than $65,000 to Democratic candidates including Obama and Clinton.

The Tomlins are not the only members of the yellow and black who are ardent supporters of Clinton and the Democratic Party. The Rooney family who owns the Steelers have a long and deep history of supporting Democratic candidates and causes. The late chairman of the team Dan Rooney was Ambassador to Ireland during the Obama administration. The Rooney family also endorsed and hosted Clinton during the 2016 election cycle.

The Steelers seemed to try to quell any fan discontent by the actions of Tomlin and his players with the release of a letter.

Pittsburgh was not the only team who decided to forgo the national anthem. Two other teams, the Seattle Seahawks and the Tennessee Titans also decided not to take part in the pregame festivities.

Both ownership groups have contributed money to political campaigns. The owner of the Seahawks, billionaire Paul Allen, donated $27,000 to Clinton Victory Fund during the 2016 election.

The owner of the Titans Amy Adams Strunk did not contribute personally to any political presidential candidate during the 2016 election cycle. However, she did donate money to the Rob Portman Ohio senate campaign in 2016.

As for Clinton, she has had some strong words for President Trump. During a Sirius XM town hall on Monday the former presidential candidate chimed in on the anthem protests.

“I think it’s deeply troubling that the president would be attacking black athletes for expressing their opinions peacefully,” Clinton told town hall host Zerlina Maxwell. “Protest is a part of the American way of life, and it’s something that I’m very proud of — whether I agree or disagree. I think peaceful protest is part of what has helped us make progress, learn more, be a better country over time, and I just couldn’t help thinking that he has attacked these black athletes for peacefully protesting, but he doesn’t really attack white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klanners, or Vladimir Putin, who interfered in our election.”

The question that needs to be answered is it appropriate for professional sports teams to make political statements? In the case of the NFL, there have been many instances in which commissioner Roger Goodell has nixed political messages on the field.

If you are not going to allow a player to wear a 9/11 themed cleat should you allow a different player to kneel for the anthem?

Personally, I don’t care whether or not a player, coach or owner supports a political candidate.

That’s their prerogative and as long as it happens off the field I am fine with it. I also don’t think the actions of the Steelers and other teams was done in concert to make President Trump look bad — although it could be perceived to be that way.

My concern is when you have a political monopoly — as we do with liberal thought in the mainstream — that opposing viewpoints will be disregarded and stifled. I see this happening more and more in professional sports leagues in regards to conventional conservative thought.

It would be best for professional sports leagues to choose to either completely embrace political and personal expression — or not to at all.

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