As captain of the United States basketball team, I carried the flag before 30,000 spectators in The World Basketball Tournament. As a member of the United States AAU team, I traveled to Russia, Europe and South America, and even played in Madison Square Garden. Nothing in my life has touched me the way sport has. Sport was so pure then.
Sport has always been a vital part of our society, but I see total ruin ahead of us if we continue to allow sport to be shaped and invaded by politics.
Someone once called sports “morally neutral,” meaning that sports should not be in the middle of cultural turmoil. The message of sports should be the action on the field or court where athletes display their skill — so profound in talent that it has often been labeled poetry in action.
To average fans, sport is entertainment with a wonderful relaxation component. It is a place where they can go to forget about the stress of everyday life — where they can see Superman and Superwoman crashing through stone walls and dashing into burning buildings. It is such a unique experience that fans want sports to stand on its own. They do not want to choose sides between divisive issues, when it is so simple to only choose one team to support.
Once sport loses its neutrality and becomes a platform for individual and group agendas, it becomes distorted, and no longer has the same meaning to the fans — or to the athletes.
The sad thing is that sports should never have become a conduit for political or individual issues, especially race issues. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell opened the door to politics when he allowed Colin Kaepernick to kneel during the presentation of the flag. The Black Power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos (1968 Olympics) was immediately met with a ban from the Olympics. David Stern, NBA commissioner from 1984-2014, handled conduct problems firmly, including when Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem.
Many people don’t understand that private businesses, such the NFL, NBA and WNBA have the right to set standards for conduct and speech, while the government cannot because of the First Amendment.
David Stern said: “The NBA is a private organization. Whatever constitutional right of speech an individual may have, there is no constitutional right to participate in the NBA, and I have the power … to disqualify players who engage in offensive conduct — including inappropriate speech.”
The inability of present sports commissioners and coaches to make hard decisions for the “good of the sport” has placed the future of sports in a precarious position.
While other businesses do not allow their employees to engage in political activities while on the job, sport has become a giant ad and a flashing billboard for political activity. Fans are bombarded with signs, T-shirts, decals and even slogans painted on the playing area.
There is no doubt the “Black Lives Matter” movement should be shaking up our culture. Most Americans would applaud athletes pushing for societal changes if they would just take off their uniforms, step away from their work sites and go out on their own time like other employees.
Athletes have enormous visibility, and make obscene amounts of money to play a game. Their commitment to cultural changes must be used wisely, or sports may turn to ashes — and no one will win.
It may already be too late. SME Steel Contractors recently canceled its suite to Utah Jazz games because of kneeling during the national anthem, and the painting of “Black Lives Matter” on the basketball court.
Fans feel like they have been snared in a “bait and switch” scheme. They pay to watch a game — which may or not be played — and they see their valued traditions, such as standing for the national anthem, disappearing before their eyes. If that is not bad enough, they leave the game more stressed out than when they came.
I have decided it is not worth it. Until politics is taken out of sports, I will read a book or go for a walk. It makes me sad. I can’t tell you how much I miss the purity of sport.
Patsy Neal, Matthews, N.C., was a three-time AAU All-American, is a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and holds a master’s degree from the University of Utah, where she also taught health and physical education.