I don’t care who Kurt Suzuki votes for in 2020. Or LeBron James. Or Colin Kaepernick. They are each American citizens just like me, with their own right to free speech and the liberty to express their opinions however they may choose.
Well, in theory, of course. As we saw this past week, equality is much more of a pipe dream than it is a reality.
On Monday, the Washington Nationals visited the White House to celebrate the city’s first World Championship since the Washington Senators won it all in 1924. As expected, it was awkward and provided its fair share of controversy.
During President Donald Trump’s speech recounting the Nationals’ magical season, he gave note of Suzuki’s heroic home run in Game 2 against the Houston Astros. Suzuki joined Trump at the podium, donned a “Make America Great Again” hat, and gleefully told the crowd, “I love you all. I love you all. Thank you.” Trump hugged Suzuki from behind and then like Suzuki’s homer, it was over in a flash.
The backlash, however, has been steady and sharp. Many have lambasted Suzuki, a fourth-generation Japanese American born in Hawaii, for his public embrace of the president. Many have pointed to Suzuki’s Asian heritage as a reason that he should reject Trump and his controversial views on immigration.
I don’t intend to engage in the politics of the incident. Suzuki has the right to support whomever he chooses, and while he certainly has a more powerful and prominent platform than most, he has the right to express his opinions however he wants.
My issue, however, is the clear and shameful double standard that exists in the ever-complex intersection between sports and politics. It’s pretty simple, really: if you’re a person of color and you express a political belief, you’re told to “shut up and dribble,” while if you’re not, go ahead about whip out your MAGA hat.
Of course, this topic is not so black-and-white (pun intended). But it is hard to ignore the varied reactions that Suzuki, James, and Kaepernick have received when each expressed a political belief, each in a seemingly harmless manner.
While Suzuki was criticized for his actions, the outrage surfaced as a result of the substance of his statement. Many liberal fans and members of the media questioned Suzuki’s boldly public acceptance of Trump, while teammates like Sean Doolitle notably declined to participate in the visit. But nobody questioned Suzuki’s basic right to put on the hat. There have not been serious calls for Suzuki to be cut, fined, or otherwise punished financially or professionally for his actions.
James and Kaepernick, on the other hand, famously received the opposite treatment. Ever since Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem to protest police brutality in America, he has been on the receiving end of an endless deluge of hatred and vitriol from fans, conservative pundits and the president. Kaepernick was blackballed by the NFL and hasn’t played since 2016.
Similarly, though less drastically, James was told to “shut up and dribble” by Fox News host Laura Ingraham after he spoke negatively of Trump. While her final four words have became an infamous rallying cry for social activism and a Sports Emmy-nominated docuseries, the full quote is even more telling.
“It’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball,” she said. “Keep the political comments to yourselves … Shut up and dribble.”
Now, Ingraham does not have to care what James thinks about Trump, race relations in the U.S., or anything else. But to question his right to share his beliefs and reduce him to a mere entertainer is a shallow, offensive viewpoint that unfortunately is all too common nowadays.
And it’s not just athletes anymore. The sports site Deadspin has seen what happens when out-of-touch media executives give their writers the same archaic message of “stick to sports.” Almost the entire editorial staff quit in protest after the outlet’s interim editor-in-chief was fired for not following the misguided directive.
The truth is, in our intersectional society in 2019, it is not truly possible to separate sports and politics. It never has been. Sports are inherently political, and the phenomenon of players and coaches engaging in political discourse is far from new. But the right to speak out is one that must be extended to all, regardless of sport, title, race, or belief. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr has just as much of a right to bash Trump as Nationals catcher Suzuki does to wear a MAGA hat on live television.
Of course, this inability to detach sports and politics is shared by journalists, too. I have personal opinions about each of the three aforementioned players, their political beliefs and the methods they used to express them. But at the end of the day, what I think about what they think does not matter. All that matters is that they each have equal opportunity to kneel, speak, and wear whatever hat they want.
Following the firestorm on Monday, Suzuki told USA Today that he was “just trying to have some fun.” He said the focus should be on the Nationals’ championship, but that “everybody makes everything political.” What did he expect?
Even at the highest levels of sports, culture, and celebrity, a stark double standard persists around race. If only Suzuki recognized the privilege he has to wear that lightning-bolt of a red hat.