In 1968, American Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the podium in Mexico City shoeless. With bowed heads and raised fists during the playing of the National Anthem, the two Olympians protested after coming in first and third respectively in the 200 meter dash. They did so to bring attention to the ongoing discrimination of black Americans.
After the demonstration, a young sportswriter by the name of Brent Musburger, a man who would go on to become one of the United States’ foremost broadcasters, penned a column on the famous protest. Musburger called the two activists “militants,” “juvenile” and — in what is one of the most tactless and impolitic utterances of his long career (though he accrued an unfortunate collection of insensitive and inappropriate statements prior to his retirement from ESPN in 2017) — “black-skinned Stormtroopers.”
“Perhaps it’s time that 20-year-old athletes quit passing themselves off as social philosophers,” he wrote.
Last week, responding to a podcast in which LeBron James and Kevin Durant were critical of President Trump, Fox News host Laura Ingraham went on air and called their statements “barely intelligible, not to mention ungrammatical.”
“Must they run their mouths like that?” she asked, echoing Musburger’s half-century old sentiment. “It’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball.”
Ingraham then added, “So keep the political commentary to yourself, or as someone once said, ‘Shut up and dribble.’”
The claim was unsurprising to anyone familiar with Fox News anchors’ collective body of work: insensitive, unfiltered and intentionally provocative.
James has since responded, recently tweeting “#wewillnotshutupanddribble.” Durant also responded that Ingraham’s comments were racist.
Ours is an epoch of activist athletes, but the advent of such figures is by no means novel. During the Vietnam War, Muhammad Ali, a conscientious objector, refused to enlist. “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people or some hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” Ali said. He was arrested and convicted for the offense.
In a moderated conversation with Ali, television host David Susskind responded, “I find nothing amusing or interesting or tolerable about this man. … He’s a disgrace to his country, his race and what he laughingly describes as his profession. … He’s a simplistic fool and a pawn.”
This kind of visceral and polemical response always succeeds the tradition of activism and advocacy by athletes. After every display of political commentary by a black athlete, a predictable retort falls from the mouths of predominantly white commentators: Shut up and stick to sports.
Ingraham’s comments contribute to this prevailing reduction of athletes to their physical capabilities, dismissing their personhood and viewpoints.
The rhetoric employed to silence athletes often relies, at least in part, on the devaluation of their intellectual personhood. Thus, these commentators position athletes not as sentient, caring, thoughtful people, but rather as vacuous automatons whose raison d’etre is to trot onto the field of play and entertain us.
But the players don’t see it that way. In fact, many professional athletes use their positions as public figures — and considerable income — for good. James’ foundation, working in concert with the Akron, Ohio, school board, just opened a new public school, an accomplishment which he considers to be among the most important things he’s done in his career. “Besides having three kids and marrying my wife, putting my mom in a position where she never has to worry about anything again for the rest of her life, this is right up there,” he said. “Championships, MVPs, I mean, points, rebounds and assists, that stuff is whatever.”
In the past few years, James has expanded his “I Promise” program to include 1,128 students, a cohort of Akron schoolchildren for which he will provide four-year college scholarships. But Ingraham didn’t mention these accomplishments. Ingraham also didn’t mention the tens of thousands of dollars Durant has donated to Positive Tomorrows — an Oklahoma City school for homeless children — in the past three years.
At the heart of Ingraham’s comments lies something beyond a deep-seated antipathy to James and Durant’s opinion of Trump. The flippancy with which Ingraham responds to their comments is emblematic of her condescension. To her, these athletes do not possess the intellectual capacity to offer comment.
That isn’t to say we should value the opinions of an athlete only when they are involved in their community. We shouldn’t accept an athlete’s point of view only because they have donated a certain amount of money to a worthy cause. We should an accept an athlete’s point of view because they are human. To pare down the value of a black athlete such that their only contributions of note take place within the lines of play is not only racist and reductive — it’s dehumanizing. I do not wish to make some sweeping indictment of the deterioration of civil discourse in our current political moment, but to respect the personhood of an athlete and the value of their insight is certainly a low bar to surpass.
Cal Barash-David ’19 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.