In some ways, we are navigating uncharted waters.
Football, and sports in general, don't exist in a vacuum. What the late, great writer Blackie Sherrod used to call the world of perspiring arts has always existed mostly for the public's entertainment, especially on the professional level. And current events have always intruded, as real life is wont to do.
Most of you are too young to remember, but the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 caused heightened debate about whether NFL games should be canceled or played. If played, in what context? More recently, the 9-11 attacks turned the country's attention away from anything entertaining. Football games again had to be put into perspective. We too often see natural disasters interfere with the playing of games.
The events of the past week, however, are new in terms of impact on the NFL. Sport has a way of navigating public tension. There's been racial strife in this country since the Civil War. Sometimes sports serves as a bridge, finding a way to be bigger than the problems and helping us find a way through them. There's no better example than Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's racial barrier. Female golfers and soccer and tennis players help bring attention to the gender pay gap. How gay men and women are able to inhabit locker rooms can be instructive into how society accepts differences.
But in the past week, from the most robust podium in our land, NFL players had patriotism defined. The deep racial overtones surrounding the whole question, for many, made it an issue of more than just respect for flag and country. Suddenly NFL owners and coaches, as well as players, were painted with the same broad brush. They were called out, which made them all feel called on. Basketball and NASCAR stars got into the fray through social media, which is the other component we've never had before. And which brings us to today's topic.
Athletes and reporters on athletics, faced with political disagreement from fans, are almost daily remonstrated: stick to sports.
Your Humble Correspondent suggests that's not what you really want.
It's easy to understand the sentiment. People read columns, listen to shows, watch games for entertainment. They don't want to be reminded of the world's warts. Some of us might say that's part of the problem, but it's easy to understand. I'm trying NOT to think about this stuff. Why are you forcing your opinions on me?
And, of course, no one is. If you follow someone on Twitter who opines on something real-world, why would you "stick to sports?" Why not just unfollow? Don't like Stephen Colbert or Rush Limbaugh's political takes? Change the channel. Besides, if you're, say, a stockbroker or a marketing executive or a mechanic with an opinion you share on Facebook, are you told to stick to stocks?
You don't have to like Clint Eastwood's or Susan Sarandon's political views to like their movies. There's not a bluer state than Massachusetts. Doesn't stop Patriot fans from loving the team owned by presidential pal Bob Kraft.
Certainly there's a time and a place for everything. That's at the heart of many of the stand-for-the-anthem arguments, and people who disagree cannot say those folks have no right to their opinion. And vice-versa.
But "stick to sports" is not the answer. It's a borderline insulting answer, and here's why: As mentioned above, sports can help heal, help unite. Help makes things better.
Is Jason Witten sticking to sports when he lends his name, time, treasure and efforts to combat the cause of domestic violence? Or is he just using his sports platform in a manner more folks approve?
Was J. J. Watt sticking to sports when he used the power of his name to raise $37 million to fight the effects of Hurricane Harvey? Or was he just doing something no one could argue with? Watt was on Twitter every day during the hurricane with updates. Anyone see a tweet, "Hey, Watt, stick to sports?"
Was Troy Aikman sticking to sports when he established Aikman's End Zones to improve the lives of hospitalized children with life threatening diseases? Or do you just like Aikman?
When Dez Bryant feeds hundreds of hungry kids in his hometown of Lufkin, Texas, is he sticking to sports? Tom Landry was a tireless worker for Athletes in Action. And that's a religious organization. Anyone ever tell him to stick to sports?
Darren Woodson has made improving the plight of America's overlooked military veterans one of the main endeavors of his non-professional life. But maybe you'd rather he stick to sports.
The Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald's First Down Fund supports education for youth, especially kids with health challenges. Emmitt and Pat Smith's Charities are raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to help people in need. But maybe better they stick to sports.
The former NFL running back Warrick Dunn has sponsored building and donating homes to dozens and dozens of homeless families to give them a fresh start in life. Stick to sports, Warrick.
And that's just football, and not even the tip of the iceberg.
Well, you say, that's just charity work, and these guys aren't out getting in my face about it. Well, yes, they are. Aikman didn't have social media when he established Aikman's End Zones. But if you follow him on any of the many social media platforms he's on, you know how proactive he is in his role as spokesman for the United Way. As he should be.
I know scads of athletes and coaches and owners and executives, and more of them than not are pretty politically conservative. I can't imagine why I'd have a problem with any of them expressing their views. Whether we agree or not, we only benefit from hearing and sharing divergent opinions. I wouldn't want them to stick to sports, unless that was their choice.
Stick to sports? Hell, sports can't stick to sports. You who populate it, please don't try.