I lost my first friend over a Trump fight on Super Bowl Sunday. The friend, a wealthy white guy here in New York who I’ve always known to lean Left, is also a big Tom Brady fan (for his underdog status in the early years, he says). After the Patriots’ win he took to Facebook to brag, ending his post with an admonishment to his friends, who had been complaining about the Trump-supporting Brady’s triumph, to pipe down and “keep their politics out of his football.” Eventually I responded to the thread, too, saying if he wanted to take umbrage with people inserting politics into sports, he might consider the scores of white supremacists currently celebrating the victory. (I won’t do you, dear reader, the disservice of linking to his Twitter, but among the revelers was neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, who beyond Brady’s ties to Trump, hailed the victory of “America’s whitest team,” calling Brady a poster-boy for the Aryan race.)
My friend responded to my comment with incredulity—“really, they’re doing that?”—so, off the ‘book I texted him a screenshot of Spencer’s feed.
“Oh come on. That’s fake,” he responded. Spencer was cruel, but not dumb enough to put something like that out on the internet.
I pointed out that the account was verified, told my friend that I happened to be very good at discerning real from fake news, thank you very much, and since he knew me well he could’ve given me the benefit of that doubt.
Adding Spencer to the list, he repeated his original sentiment—he didn’t care about Spencer’s or Brady’s, or anybody’s politics; he just wanted to enjoy his football. I reminded him that not all of us have the privilege of being able to separate politics’ out from certain sectors of our lives.
“I get that you’re mad and scared and I’m a white male…” he said. The “but” was implied—I was overreacting. He felt like he was the only sane one in the house, he said.
He was right; I am scared. As a Deaf person and a woman in the face of an administration who seems eager to flout the Americans with Disabilities Act and aren’t totally solid in their knowledge of where babies come from, I am scared for myself—but as a New Yorker I am also scared for my friends and neighbors who will suffer under these and other violations of human rights based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, or myriad intersections thereof.
Since I know him to be a smart, well-read man, I thought my friend’s empathy on this front would be intact, too. I told him it was his job to be the sane one now, when he wasn’t in danger of anything changing for him, his duty to be compassionate, since he had the ability to choose when and how to engage with the political situation.
“No,” he said. “I don’t have new jobs. I don’t have new conditions because of an election in my country.”
That was the last time we talked. What else is there to say? He stands firm in the belief that there is no need–moral or otherwise–for him to speak out on my, or anyone else’s behalf, once the administration comes for our Constitutional rights, even though his body, his family, his home and health insurance are safe. He couldn’t even do it when confronted with momentary discomfort in the face of a football team he kind of liked. It was the latest concrete rendering of something I’d come to notice over the past few months: when people say to “keep politics out of sports,” they really only mean keep liberal politics out.
Whenever the MLB has made gestures toward inclusivity, like banning hazing, including rituals that force rookies to dress like women, there is an outcry against the “wussification” or liberal snowflake takeover of the organization. But the MLB’s repeatedly fraught handling of players with histories of domestic violence is continually taken in stride by many fans and franchises, ours included. Meanwhile, former players like Curt Schilling use baseball fame to gain political power and spew racist and misogynistic vitriol out into the ether.
My partner says doing so might have put Schilling’s place in the MLB Hall of Fame at risk. I say the future of the MLB may well depend on that decision.
As America’s self-designated pastime, it will be interesting to see how the MLB and its franchises proceed while the definition of “America” itself shifts under our feet. Professional sports in general present an interesting divide: while NBA and WNBA stars have taken to speaking out about causes like Black Lives Matter and the immigration ban, the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick is worried enough about the effect of his National Anthem protests on his prospects that he’s assured the NFL he’ll give it up in 2017.
With respect to which way baseball will go, the answer lies in large part with the players. The Trump administration has raised the stakes beyond questions of offending fans with words or rituals; players themselves may well find themselves having to contend with negative racial stereotypes propagated via GOP immigration policy, including the proposed establishment of an office to track crimes committed by immigrants, and the ever-looming promise of “the wall.” And while of course a country has a right to secure borders, and foreign-born MLB players are surely all documented immigrants, moments in which American citizens like Muhammad Ali Jr. are repeatedly detained for the sound of their names show a blurring of lines between enforcement of the law and sweeping ethnic/racial hatreds. As of 2015, the MLB’s opening day rosters were made up of 29.3 percent Hispanic players. Will they feel galvanized by the uptick in hatred levied at their identity? Will they feel safe enough to speak out against it? I suspect we are about to find out.
In our social media age, it may seem like the mixing of sports and politics is a new conundrum, but really the questions are as old as the organizations themselves (older). And though progressives take the all the heat for bringing questions of “diversity” and “tolerance” to the mainstream, those roots go much deeper—after all, what are white supremacy and racism if not extreme forms of identity politics? As bigotry gets a mainstream platform, the MLB can’t rest on its #42 laurels. Color lines are alive and well, and so is the question of which side of history the sport will fall.
There is one striking difference between then and now, though—never has a U.S. President been more desperate to garner the approval of the “cool kids.” We know Trump is a sports fan, and that criticism from TV personalities, movie stars, musicians and sports players rankles him to an unprecedented degree. All it takes is a 3:00am tweet to catch his attention, so America’s favorite pastime could well impact its future, after all, if we let it.
Photo Credit: Anthony Gruppuso–USA TODAY Sports