There’s no room for politics in sports

Guest column

In May, the team owners of the National Football League (NFL) instituted some new rules for football players and teams.

This new rule was a reaction to protests some players have made during the playing of the national anthem.

There are many strong opinions on this issue expressed by those for and against the protests, which consisted of players kneeling or sitting during the national anthem and in some cases standing with arms linked as a show of solidarity.

I see this issue from a different point of view — everyone is wrong.

I normally avoid politics and controversial topics because as president of the International Institute for Sport History, I try to remain neutral whenever possible.

To me, sport is a unifying event, an activity that can gather people together for a common love either by participating in or observing sports. To me, the event is the focus, and participation in the event is the highest form of camaraderie.

From children’s t-ball to professional sports leagues, it is the activity that is important — not the politics of the participants nor the spectators. Too often this is ignored or manipulated by those who have a personal agenda.

The issue of kneeling, or any other form of protest or awareness, is not appropriate at any sports event, whether it be a football game or the Olympic Games. If we accept any form of political protest, such as kneeling, then we have the requirement to accept all forms of protest for any and every issue.

Failure to accept all forms of protest is hypocritical, biased and maybe even racist, and to believe that your form of protest is acceptable but another person’s protest isn’t is wrong.

This leads to the possibility that all sports events, every time, will have some sort of demonstration for whatever issue is timely, whether it is American or some other nation.

How do we deal with a Spanish player who wants to raise awareness for Catalonian or Basque independence? Shall we wear armbands to free Tibet? How about a French-Canadian player protesting in ice hockey to raise awareness that he wants to support Quebec to break away from Canada and become an independent nation?

If an American football team has an athlete from Nigeria, England or Taiwan, how shall we deal with their (potential) individual statements of awareness based on issues at home? The sport becomes a venue for political statements and displays rather than the sport itself.

I subscribe to the philosophy that sports events bring people together, that they can develop harmony, that it can promote peaceful relations.

Obviously, I am an idealist, but that is what sport is — idealism. It certainly is not necessary for life. In many cases it is merely entertainment.

But for those who participate in sport, there is a love for sport. Not always, of course. Many professionals would say they play for the money, that their careers are short and if the money was not there, they would not be there. For these professionals, sport is business, a job, an income. But for most of us, sport is for the love of the game.

Politics has no place in sport and no place in the stadium. Politics is divisive. Sport usually joins people. This can be argumentative if you watch some European or South American soccer (football) events. But it is wrong. These expressions of violence ruin the game.

We are fortunate to live in a country where freedom of speech is a cherished right, not a privilege. However, playing sport is a privilege, and not a protected right.

Players and fans alike need to leave politics in the parking lots, the streets and the pubs. Keep politics out of the game.

Those who pay $90 for a stadium ticket are paying to see the game, not listen to someone’s political opinions. If we accept one form of protest, then we must accept all forms of protest. If you accept kneeling as a form of protest, will you also accept the protests for all issues? After all, every protest is made to “raise awareness” for a “just cause.”

All sports need to remain free of political interference and expression — no exceptions.

Harvey Abrams is a sports historian, writer and founder of International Institute for Sport History. He resides in State College.