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More Than the Game: Protests in Sports

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NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Ottawa Senators at New York Rangers Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

For many, sports are an escape from the real world. But with the heightened political climate and growing tensions across the country, the divide between sports and politics is more blurred than ever.

As professional athletes and sportswriters have used their platforms to communicate their own political opinions, the response from many fans has been “stick to sports,” especially when their ideals do not align.

Professional athletes ignited a political conversation last year, some using social media to express their opinions, and others by making their message known on game-day.

Already this early into the NFL preseason and before the NHL season has even began, there have been politically charged demonstrations – most notably, Marshawn Lynch of the Oakland Raiders sitting during the national anthem, an extension of what Colin Kaepernick inspired last season. And already this year, these actions have triggered harsh criticism.

Some view kneeling during the national anthem as disrespectful, rather than trying to understand the meaningful intentions behind it. Jeremey Roenick is one of those voices, as he made his opinion clear on Twitter with tweets like “Marshawn you should have stayed retired.” Roenick tweeted this on Monday, despite remaining silent during the tragic and hateful events in Charlottesville this weekend – until a fan questioned his silence on that, but comments on Lynch’s actions.

Today’s political climate is even more tense than during the 2016-17 season, and that consequently could inspire these gestures to intensify – despite the pushback from largely conservative fans and team owners.

As simple as the phrase “stick to sports” may be, politics are becoming even more of a complex issue, and socially responsible athletes and writers feel the need to support their causes in any impactful way. It directs those in the sports world to suppress the complicated circumstances of their everyday lives for the entertainment of their fans. It ignores and dismisses what may be affecting these athletes on a personal level – in the hockey world, one need not look further than Mika Zibanejad and Nazem Kadri, who both are/would be personally affected by the travel ban President Trump attempted to implement last season.

The United States prides itself on its freedoms, but for many those freedoms have come into question and professional athletes have been personally affected. And in response, they’ve moved past just taking to social media to make a statement – which is why some have chosen to participate in demonstrations on the biggest platforms they have.

As much as anyone takes issue with a player’s perceived disrespect towards the national anthem, it has absolutely no influence on the game itself. Until the game-clock begins, players have an opportunity to convey a message – just as teams create theme nights or have a veteran drop a ceremonial puck for military appreciation.

No player protest should be characterized as malicious or disrespectful; rather, they should be recognized and celebrated as a symbol of a fundamental principle that this country stands for: the freedom to express your beliefs. At this point in time, these gestures are directed at the dissatisfaction with the political rhetoric, police brutality, and support of hateful groups like Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan, and white nationalists.

Many traditional minds – most noticeably conservatives – who disagree with what these players stand for, feel there is no place in sports for these expressions, especially on game-day. But this is the most effective way for athletes to reach fans that don’t frequent social media – and clearly it’s working as it’s been a major point of conversation across the nation for the last year.

If a sporting event is not the appropriate venue to open this discussion, what is? Some of the most pressing issues in this country, such as race and religion, may never be comfortable topics to deal with, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be addressed at all. This forces a crucial topic, one which touches so many people’s lives, into the spotlight. These expressions represent a dismal reality that first has to be acknowledged in order to be remedied.

Sports professionals now have an unparalleled ability to make their voices heard and are no less entitled to share their political opinions. Those who demand that professionals “stick to sports” need to listen to the message and look past the messenger.