Bigger than a Ballgame: The Complexity of Sports Coverage in 2017

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If you’re reading this, you probably have an interest in women’s soccer.

So do I.

In fact, I really like a lot of sports, and I’ve been a sports fan my whole life. I love the competition, and to be honest, since I mentioned it, I’ve also been told by countless people that I’m a competitive person. In this moment, as I try to delineate the direction of causality, I’m not sure if sports helped me to develop a competitive personality or if it’s part of my competitive nature that drove me to like sports. The cool thing about humans being complex characters is that it’s probably a little bit of both, right?

Factors influencing the person I have become have likely come from countless directions. People are complex, just as society is complex, interactions are complex, emotions are complex, interpretation of emotion is complex, perceptions are complex, and on and on and on. All of these complexities are woven into life experiences contributing to personal development.

At the risk of severely oversimplifying child development, I will reference my own life experiences and generalize the process of growing up into three stages. We begin as inquisitive children, and without warning emerge as headstrong and confusing adolescents. Then, with what feels like a lightning strike of unwelcomed instancy, we are adult people with opinions, well-developed personalities, and responsibilities.

Some of my earliest memories include watching Detroit Tigers baseball and Michigan Football with my dad. If I wasn’t watching sports, I was at the softball field playing bat-girl while my dad coached my mom’s slow-pitch softball team (she was the best second-basewoman St. Joe’s ever had, and she could bat left- and right-handed). Beginning in elementary school and continuing through high school, I played basketball and softball. In my adult years, I have coached them as well. Now, I’m a graduate student with a passion for women’s soccer.

Between playing, coaching, and spectating, the sequence of events throughout a sporting event have remained relatively constant. Teams warm up, the national anthem is played, there’s some healthy competition, there’s victory, there’s defeat, and then there’s a handshake. Depending on the sport, the age, and the level of competition, this order might change, but typically, this is what those of us who follow and participate in sports come to expect.

For every game I have played, for every game I have coached, and for every game I have attended, I have stood for the national anthem, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. This was not an action I had ever questioned. And then last year, when Colin Kaepernick was excoriated by countless media outlets, memes, radio hosts, you name it, for using the national anthem to make a statement about what exactly it is that the anthem represents, and what exactly it is that we are supposed to be standing for, I thought about it a lot.

I’m from a Michigan town of minimal racial diversity, and privilege is not something I was ever confronted with until well into my adult years. I can see how there are people who have never been confronted with these issues and who believe they’re bogus, but they’re not. They’re real. Many of the freedoms that exist for me because of the color of my skin don’t exist for everyone.

Discourse in my social media circles often cites that silence in times of injustice is equivalent to being complicit with said injustice. Thus, speaking out is imperative. As a white woman who happens to be married to a white woman, I am constantly conscious of my identity and how my participation in anything social justice related might be perceived as me trying to absolve myself of guilt without actually doing anything to make a difference. Then, Megan Rapinoe took a knee during the national anthem following Colin Kaepernick’s action, and I felt like because I was able to more closely identify with her, I could be more confident with using my voice.

It’s no surprise that Rapinoe taking a knee was met with a polarized public response. Taking a knee in a Seattle Reign uniform is one thing, but taking a knee with the USA crest on the chest is another. Last September, following her initial anthem protest with Seattle, Rapinoe tweeted in reply to Shaun King, an outspoken journalist who covers issues of policing, Black Lives Matter, and who helps to lead the #NFLBoycott charge.

King’s tweet has since been deleted, but in response to Rapinoe’s tweet, thousands of people used the opportunity to reply. This space, where anyone with a Twitter account has the platform to direct their political and patriotic ideals at a professional athlete, is where I argue it’s impossible, and even irresponsible for athletes and those who cover them to simply “stick to sports.”

Together, we are learning to navigate through a time where we have access to professional athletes like never before. For some, that access is associated with a sense of entitlement, and when social media platforms allow for seamless back and forth between average Joes and public figures, it’s almost as if we need to be armed with knowledge, facts, and rebuttals to potential arguments like never before. To be a public figure in 2017 means to be inherently political. Even if an athlete or a coach tries to avoid being political, they are being asked to voice their opinions about current events as they unfold.

It used to be possible for people to be athletes, and athletes only without consequence. It used to be possible for sports broadcasters to only cover sports without consequence. Further, it used to be possible for sports writers to only cover sports without consequence, but that’s no longer true. We have untethered access to all of the knowledge that exists in the world, and in turn, we are open to critique from everyone who encounters what we produce. Where we are now, it is nearly impossible to report on a sports team or a sporting event without considering the context within which they exist. That context? It’s complex. It’s political.

So now, when I reflect on those years of playing and watching sports as a kid, I think about the context within which they were played. I might not have understood how sports were shaping my worldview, but I realize now that they did. I think about the athletes I loved to watch back then and how I feel now as an adult when I learn how, for example, they fought for equality. The fight for equality is a gauge for where we are as a society, in many cases, politically. As sports and athletes continue to interact with political issues, it is imperative that those who cover sports provide the context for those actions. Personally, I will continue to arm myself with the knowledge to best interpret complex situations, and it is my great hope that we can begin to accept that covering sports and dealing with issues that are considered to be political is inherently inseparable.

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