Finding Unity in Sports is an Important Part of American Culture

This terrible pandemic has deprived us of sports for far too long. In these months without live sports I’ve contemplated where they fit in society. At times, I’ve wondered if they’re too important. Do we put them too close to the center of our life and derive too much of our self-identity from them? Are they an escape from a reality we don’t want to do deal with? On both accounts, probably yes, but I’ve also realized they serve as a binding agent of sorts. Sports, at their best, connect people across political, socio-economic, and racial barriers.

Coach Dabo Swinney once said:

“When the Tigers score, man, they’re high-fiving and hugging, and a lot of those people Monday through Friday, because they’ve got different political beliefs or different religions or different checking accounts, they probably walk right by each other, but all of a sudden a football game breaks out and they’re inviting each other to the tailgate.” – Dabo Swinney

I met one of my closest friends at a Clemson baseball game back when we were students. We got to talking and realized that in addition to being die-hard Clemson supporters we were both Yankees and Lakers fans. Over the years, we’ve become very close. We built a friendship about much more than sports despite having radically different world views. Sports were the bridge that connected us. Through our friendship we’ve heard each other’s opposing views, realized those who are different from us aren’t terrible, and enjoyed a pair of Clemson national championships.

With this special bridge-building quality they possess, sports can serve as a catalyst for societal improvement. Jesse Owens, an African-American, winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin was a beautiful rebuke of Hitler’s racism. Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier is another beautiful example of this. The Dodgers’ Rick Monday spontaneously snatching the American flag from fans who ran onto the field to burn it, and the Miracle on Ice in the 1980 Winter Olympics against the USSR are other excellent examples. In those instances, sports were making America better or bringing Americans together.

That takes us to today’s tumultuous times. The events that led to the national conversation about race relations are horrific. George Floyd was being arrested for using a forged $20 bill when a police officer choked him with his knee and he eventually died (Update: full leaked video).

Following this atrocity, some sports figures have used their platform in ways that have been educational and helpful. Emmanuel Acho with his Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man series stands out in this regard.

At the same time, many have been pressured to say “something.” Listening, learning, and loving are not enough to appease the mob. One must release a public statement, even if it is a disingenuous one crafted by a PR person. We’ve moved beyond “don’t say the wrong thing.” Now coaches and players are strongly urged to use their platform to “speak out.” While this can bring awareness and positive change, it isn’t without challenges.

When our culture encourages every sports figure “use their voice” it inevitably includes the ignorant ones. That’s what we got when Eagles WR DeSean Jackson posted on social media that Jews are holding blacks down and stopping racial progress and the incendiary comments from Stephen Jackson saying those anti-Semitic posts were “speaking the truth.”

Additionally, this pushes corporations to get involved in ways that can quickly become political and disingenuous. The NBA will allow players to put slogans on their jerseys when the league starts up again, but they’ve provided a list of approved slogans that they’re comfortable with their players using. They cannot choose anything that isn’t on the pre-approved list. Some of the more political or just plain strange examples of approved slogans include “Vote,” “Group Economics,” “Sí Se Puede,” and “I Am A Man.”

Sports can naturally help move politics and culture in the right direction, but we have to let them. The type of ignorant activism from DeSean Jackson and disingenuous political speech from the corporate offices of the NBA erode the special unifying quality of sports.

This brings us back to Coach Swinney. In a culture that expects immediate and perfectly crafted speech from leaders in sports, Coach Swinney has been under fire this offseason for what he has said, what he hasn’t said, and how quickly (or not) he said it. After posting a 14-minute video in which he stood up against racism and corrected several false or out-of-context claims against his program, many took to social media to complain about how he said it or to question his genuineness. One common refrain was, “Why did it take so long?”

The implicit assumption in the accusation is that Swinney or others who don’t speak out fast enough or with all the right words are uncaring. Oftentimes however “not ready,” “afraid to say the wrong thing,” or “listening” are the case.

A few years ago he argued that a two-term black president was reason to believe the state of race relations in America “were only a dream” to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While he wasn’t necessarily wrong, in hindsight, it seems he didn’t understand the discontent and hurt the black community was feeling about race relations or the less obvious forms of bigotry they face (and frankly neither did the vast majority of us). Fast-forward to this year and Coach Swinney is literally leading a march through Clemson and creating a platform for his players like Darien Rencher to share their experiences, perspective, and hope for the future. Did he come to understand this through his own speech? No, he did it by listening to players he loved.

That’s why I find those suggesting Coach Swinney didn’t speak fast enough or worse, that he wasn’t genuine, so offensive. He listened to his players and spoke when he was ready and did so in a much more meaningful way than those who dropped canned statements on Twitter written by PR professionals. He is a good man who loves his players and they love him back. Let’s allow him to do that and speak on his own timeline. Then, let’s allow sports to unite us.

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