Monson: One more collision between sports and politics in an imperfect world
By Gordon Monson
Tribune ColumnistFirst published Feb 27 2014 01:08PM
Sports and political/social issues sometimes find themselves aboard a couple of old Buicks barreling head-on down a county two-lane, swerving in and out of and over the painted lines, en route to a major collision.
That’s part of what happened in Arizona when a now-infamous bill there was set to be adopted this week that could have enabled a legal defense for businesses to refuse service to gay people if the refusal was based on religious beliefs. Proponents said the bill was misrepresented and misunderstood, that it protected religious freedoms. Opponents said the bill would legalize discrimination.
The NFL said the bill was baloney.
The league didn’t use that exact word, but it might as well have.
Its statement: "Our policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or any other improper standard. We are following the issue in Arizona and will continue to do so should the bill be signed into law."
Translation: If the bill becomes law, say goodbye to the 2015 Super Bowl, scheduled for University of Phoenix Stadium.
Arizona governor Jan Brewer 86’ed the bill with a veto Wednesday evening.
Not saying the NFL’s position was taken solely for altruistic reasons — it has its own issues regarding open opportunities for gay players in the league — or that it was the only one that mattered in the governor’s decision. There was widespread outcry and opposition coming from many corners, including companies such as Apple, Marriott, American Express, American Airlines and from most people with vision enough to see the stupid ramifications — intended or otherwise — within the bill. But the fact that the NFL was already looking for alternate sites for its big game sent a strong message that smacked Brewer in the head like a swinging two-by-four.
It was just the latest instance of sports and political/social issues colliding. The NFL moved the 1993 Super Bowl out of Arizona after voters there would not approve a state holiday honoring Martin Luther King. And there have been many other cases in other leagues in other places in other sports, traced to far-flung issues of varying import here in the United States and points around the globe.
Remember the Football War, involving Honduras and El Salvador in the qualifying round of the 1970 FIFA World Cup? The Max Schmeling-Joe Louis fights and Jesse Owens’ gold-medal performance at the Olympics in Germany during the 1930s, each of which became rallying points for Nazi propaganda and anti-Nazi sentiments? The Ping-Pong diplomacy of the ’70s when table tennis teams from China and the United States helped thaw relations between the countries? The boycott of the 1980 Soviet Olympics by the U.S. and the attendant Soviet boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics? The tragedy of the 1972 Olympics in Munich?
One of the most memorable head-ons in my lifetime came at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, where Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the medals podium with their heads bowed and fists raised, bringing attention to the American fight for civil rights.
Poignant and powerful. Unforgettable.
A whole lot of people wish such crossover never happened, not because they are unsympathetic to great causes, rather because sports that can be pulled in both good and evil directions should be sports, pulled in no direction. Sports should be sports. Politics should be politics. Social issues should be social issues.
All things being equal, they would prefer to build a freaking guardrail down the middle of that county two-lane. I’ve interviewed American athletes, for example, who had trained their whole lives for the chance to compete at those Moscow Games, only to have that opportunity tossed aside over stances taken or grandstanding done by politicians.
Here’s the problem though: All things are not equal. Things are never equal.
Until they are, smashups will happen. Lines will be crossed. Engines will continue to be crushed back into passenger compartments. Debris will be scattered all over the road. Complete separation will be tough to come by.
Sometimes, that’s a positive thing. Sometimes, it’s not so positive.
With any luck, sports one day will find itself surrounded by fairness, equality and justice, burning down a clear, unimpeded express lane to great competition and only great competition, to sports for sports’ sake. Don’t hold your breath. It’s just the best for which we can hope.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone.Twitter: @GordonMonson