"Sports and politics are separate entities. I turn to sports to get away from politics because I don't care about politics." How many sports fans have said this phrase at some point in their life? The answer: almost every last one. The other phrase sports fans have heard, "sports inherently don't matter. They are not important in the grand scheme." Both of these statements should anger sports lovers everywhere not only because both are inherently false, but because both so dramatically cloud the truth it's sickening: Sports and politics are forever intertwined, and because of that they are a cultural prism the likes of which may only be matched by entertainment and religion themselves.
This has become a topic of conversation again because of the controversial "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" passed in Indiana. Whether you agree with the law or not, and whether you think this law is any different from the federal law with the same name or other versions of it passed in other states (Garrett Epps of the Atlantic explains this better than I could), sports are playing a key role in bringing this Act up for public discussion. Without sports, many sports fans would not know of this law's existence, meaning an entire segment of the population in this country, especially in Indiana would have never known about it. Sports have been at the forefront of the discussion on LGBT rights thanks to Robbie Rogers, Michael Sam, Jason Collins, the You Can Play Project, and now they have become an important lens into the discussion once again. So many sports figures, including adopted native son Reggie Miller, Charles Barkley, and so many others have spoken out against it, and the chorus from inside and outside sports is just too loud to ignore. But, sports have not only played a huge role in forging a discussion on LGBT rights in this country, but they have been critical in so many other social and political issue discussions.
What were Tommie Smith and John Carlos' actions if not political? Why is Jackie Robinson's told and re-told over and over again if it wasn't a political story of overcoming the great odds of fighting institutionalized segregation? The NFL pulled the Super Bowl from Arizona in 1993 because the state would not recognize Martin Luther King Day, what is that if not politically tinged? Why do so many turn out in droves to watch Americans compete at the Olympics and the US Soccer team at the World Cup, if not for patriotic and political satisfaction? What about the statements made by athletes in response to what occurred in Ferguson, Missouri?
Sports and politics cannot be separated from each other, just as religion and politics are inseparable, and entertainment and politics are inseparable. Athletes are making fewer and fewer political statements not because of the supposed "separation of sports and politics", but because of the need to keep branding tight and controversies to a minimum. When athletes make political statements today, they are making them because the issues are not only of major importance, they supersede the capitalistic and business under/overtones that sports are so reliant on today. This is why the world is taking notice of the statements by so many in a chorus against Indiana's controversial new law. It supersedes sports, but directly affects them in the same breath.
This will not be the last time sports and politics intersect critically to bring awareness to an issue that has become the forefront in the country's mind. Every time this event occurs, even with a different issue, we as sports fans must take notice and be counted. Our collective awareness of the political issues the country faces often comes to us first through a sports lens, and the LGBT rights issue is one of them. It might be the issue sports has provided the most headway on.
So the next time anyone tells you "sports and politics should be separate" and that "sports don't matter", tell them to read the news. Then ask them again if "sports don't matter".
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