Evanson Column: Sports are no longer 'just a game'
Maybe it's the money, maybe it's the times in which we're living, or maybe it's more complicated than that.
But the games we loved to play and continue to love watching at the highest level aren't ours anymore — they've been hijacked by a generation with more on its mind.
The U.S. Women's National Team just won the World Cup. With the weight of heightened expectations built into a two-decade history of dominance, they won the World Cup without losing a game and outscoring their opponents by a combined score of 26-3. But they also did so carrying the baggage of an agenda.
They're just the latest example of athletes who are unafraid to speak out or against social norms they see as abnormal. Racism, homophobia, women's inequalities — all issues undeniably prevalent over the more than 200-year history of this country, and all things that lie squarely in the crosshairs of today's sports.
Like it or not, this country — like every other nation in the world — has problems. The aforementioned social issues have been and continue to be obstacles for separate sects of our population, and poverty, health care and a growing disparity between the financial haves and have-nots are proving to be hotter-button issues by the day. In years past, professional and high-level amateur athletes often kept mum based primarily on the financial risks of taking a stand. Yet as the pay has increased, the power has shifted toward the athletes who often make more money off their field of play than on it. Add social media, which allows everyone a voice, a 24-hour news cycle begging for headlines and a president unafraid to stoke an already white-hot topic or 10, and you've got a generation of athletes unwilling to "shut up and dribble."
Personally, I despise that expression. While ignorant at its root, it's given license to equally ignorant commentary on the other end of the spectrum. Everyone — including athletes — has a right to an opinion, but that right doesn't make your opinion correct, and it's OK for different people to think differently.
There's an age-old adage that says, "You can't understand someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes." Heck, Elvis wrote a song about it. As a Caucasian man, I can't claim to understand the African-American experience. Nor can a man, a woman's. Or a heterosexual, that of someone from the LGBT community. But while it's nearly impossible to truly live the life of someone you are not, one can acquire a modicum of understanding by a least considering their perspective — something many on both sides of today's popular and not-so-popular arguments seem unwilling to do.
USWNT member Megan Rapinoe famously hitched her wagon to the Colin Kaepernick protest when she chose to kneel during the National Anthem nearly three years ago, and since has continued to participate in the pregame ritual in a limited manner. Many support her, many more do not. But neither seem interested in understanding the other, having drawn a proverbial line in the sand between the two. Supporters trivialize the anthem, opposition holds it in high regard. Therein lies the problem: two sides of a debate disinterested in seeing it any other way.
I wish sports could live and breathe without the imposition of political protest. After all, their primary purpose is to entertain. But while I dislike the nuisance that detracts from my experience, I understand the power of the platform, along with the difference that platform can make to something someone truly believes in.
Muhammad Ali, John Montgomery Ward, Gertrude Ederle, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Kathrine Switzer, Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Billie Jean King and Bill Walton are all members of previous generations of athletes whose protests paved the way for today's generation to try and do the same.
Athletes are speaking out. Directly, women soccer players want more respect. Indirectly, they want the money that comes with it. Rapinoe and Kaepernick want a conversation about police brutality. College athletes want a piece of the ever-increasing revenue as a result of their sacrifice. And players in general want more say in where and for whom they play. You and I may not agree with any or all of what they're fighting for, but we at least should respect their right to express themselves in the process.
The U.S Women's National Team made it clear prior to and during this year's World Cup — they're tired of playing second fiddle. They talked the talk, then walked it over their run to a second consecutive World Cup championship. They play hard as a team, and with respect for their opponents, but they want that same respect in return — and they won't have it any other way.
This is the new age of sport, love it or leave it, because it's here to stay.