Columnists, Sports

7th Inning Stretch: Three leagues, three maddening displays of incivility and cowardice

October is a special time in the world of sports: it’s the month of the “Sports Equinox.” This time each year, all four major professional sports leagues coincide, presenting the opportunity for sports fans to enjoy three or four games across different sports on any given day.

Unfortunately, such a period of overlap also allows for similar controversies to infect several leagues simultaneously. This past week, we witnessed just that.

Across the MLB, NBA, and NFL, three different conversations emerged, all connected to the same root cause. With an uproar over a Washington Nationals pitcher missing a playoff game for the birth of his daughter, an NBA executive expressing support for the protests in Hong Kong, and yet another chapter in the Colin Kaepernick saga, America’s three most popular sports leagues each became embroiled in egregious and related controversies pertaining to the freedom of speech and civil liberties of professional athletes.

For the sake of chronology, allow us to begin with Kaepernick, the quarterback-turned-martyr who hasn’t played a snap in the NFL since 2016. Kaepernick famously started a movement of kneeling during the National Anthem to raise awareness and speak out against police brutality and racism in America. After remaining unsigned through the 2017 offseason and preseason, Kaepernick filed a grievance against the NFL, accusing the league’s owners of collusion to keep him out of the game. After the NFL’s request to dismiss the case was denied, the case went to trial. In February of this year, Kaepernick reached a confidential settlement with the NFL and withdrew his grievance.

Legal proceedings aside, it remains a grave injustice that an athlete’s career was derailed due to his political activism. Regardless of one’s politics, freedom of speech ought to be nonpartisan. But in the NFL, a league whose owners and fans are predominantly white and conservative, Kaepernick was turned into a pariah. In a country where flag burning is legal, peaceful protest during the National Anthem can lead to loss of employment, plus nonstop vitriolic harassment from millions, including the president.

With a new NFL season underway, Kaepernick’s agent and PR director released a statement last week, entitled, “Facts to Address The False Narratives Regarding Colin Kaepernick.” The release, which primarily takes the form of a written Q&A, aims to prove the many ways in which Kaepernick deserves to be playing. After highlighting Kaepernick’s impressive resume, it concludes, “In summary, it is difficult to think of another young player in NFL history with statistics and character as impressive as Colin’s not being given an opportunity to earn a spot on an NFL roster after what he has accomplished.” Well said.

Meanwhile, over in the NBA, the league and its stars have spent the past few weeks equivocating to China rather than standing for the freedom of speech it claims to support.

The episode began when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for the protests taking place in Hong Kong. In the whirlwind of cowardice that followed, Morey’s tweet was deleted, the league betrayed its own values and NBA stars such as James Harden and LeBron James sacrificed their integrity to serve as mouthpieces for the league. At the end of the confusing debacle, the NBA looks bad, James has been slammed for turning his back on his own history of activism and it is painfully clear where the NBA’s priorities lie: money over all else.

China represents the league’s greatest business partner and international market. The NBA is incredibly popular in China, with nearly 500 million people watching the league’s programming last season on the country’s leading streaming provider. The NBA’s business in China is worth an estimated $4 billion. Imagine how much financial damage a single tweet could cause for the league to bow to China rather than stand up for the civil liberties it claims to defend.

Finally, over in the MLB, some members of the media are similarly displaying a lack of humanity regarding the personal lives of players. Washington Nationals closer Daniel Hudson missed Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals because he had flown home to Arizona for the birth of his daughter.

CBS Sports HQ personality David Sampson took issue with Hudson’s decision to place family over sport. He tweeted, “Unreal that Daniel Hudson is on paternity list and missing game 1 of #NLCS . Only excuse would be a problem with the birth or health of baby or mother. If all is well, he needs to get to St. Louis. Inexcusable. Will it matter? #waittosee”

I can’t think of a worse take than this.

Hudson, a 32-year-old reliever who has bounced from team to team, now has three daughters. When he’s not pitching for the Nationals, he’s a father. Even when he is pitching, he’s still a father. And in any other profession, when people miss work for family matters, it is fully acceptable. But when an athlete misses a playoff game? Inexcusable. Never mind that the Nationals won the game. Unless there was a birth defect, Hudson must miss this incredibly intimate and important time in his life to play in a baseball game. And Sampson, a former baseball executive, appears completely tone deaf to the situation, despite having three children of his own.
So there we have it. Three leagues, three different infuriating instances of the humanity and civil liberties of a player or employee losing out to corporate greed and hypocrisy. There has long been a pervasive belief in sports that athletes are property of their teams and leagues and therefore sacrifice certain basic privileges. They get paid millions to play a game, so surely they ought to just, as some say, shut up and dribble.

It’s funny, I’ve learned about the First Amendment countless times. “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech…” I guess in all my education, I’ve missed the clause that adds “unless you’re an athlete.” My bad, everyone

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