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Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Column: When athletes cross into politics, fans don’t have to listen

Why should we care what Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen’s opinion of Fidel Castro is?

A little more than a year ago, I had the chance to see a film called “Not Just A Game: Power, Politics and American Sports.” It’s a documentary co-written by Dave Zirin, a sports columnist and writer for the progressive magazine The Nation, in which Zirin takes on the conventional wisdom that sports and politics are inherently separate entities, and challenges the notion that athletes should stay away from taking political stances.

He argues that, because politics plays such a big part in the modern American sports landscape (whether it’s through militaristic fly-overs or a hyper-masculine “locker room culture”), it’s wrong to turn around and say athletes should never be able to open their mouths about issues bigger than their games.

And Zirin’s right, of course. So much of sports is inherently political—like it or not, the NFL and NBA lockouts were clashes between owners and unions, and our annual Masters hosts at Augusta National are really just specialists in 19th Century-era misogyny. Like Zirin says, sports is not an apolitical space, meaning we should demand that athletes act apolitically.

But while athletes have the right to speak their minds, and even to use the stardom they’ve gained to give themselves a bigger megaphone with which to announce those beliefs, I also reserve the right to do something equally American. I can always ignore those athletes if they say something stupid.

We’ve all gotten a lesson in why we don’t need to listen to everyone’s political beliefs this week, with the firestorm over Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen telling Time magazine he loves and respects Cuban dictator Fidel Castro for staying in power so long.

Now, it’s generally not a great idea to say you love and respect a totalitarian ruler who has violently oppressed a country for decades. That’s just one of my rules of thumb. But saying you love and respect a totalitarian dictator when quite a few of your own fans are people who escaped him? Well, it takes a whole lot of insensitive stupidity to say something like that.

Guillen has since apologized for his remarks, saying they were misinterpreted, and the Marlins have suspended him for five games. Among Cuban exiles in Miami, however, the damage has clearly been done as fans are already calling for Guillen’s head.

But Ozzie Guillen is just the latest example of an athlete (a term here used very loosely since he is a manager and not a player) speaking their mind, and placing their foot square inside their mouth. He only goes to prove that athletes can say whatever they want, but we don’t have to pay attention.

Ozzie can talk about Fidel Castro until he’s blue in the face, but if he’s not going to say anything intelligent he’s not worth listening to. (And he didn’t say anything intelligent—staying in power for decades thanks to political intimidation and totalitarian rule isn’t something I consider admirable in a ruler.)

The same could be said for Baltimore Orioles left fielder Luke Scott, who told Yahoo! Sports in 2010 he didn’t think President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Or for Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas who refused to join his team at the White House because he didn’t like the president and, apparently, lacked a proper, non-partisan respect for the office.

Athletes’ opinions shouldn’t be immediately disregarded just because they play sports for a living, of course, and there have been plenty of athletes who have voiced legitimate, well-informed political concerns. Years after he broke baseball’s color barrier, for instance, Jackie Robinson chaired the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Before he was killed in Afghanistan (and inaccurately turned into an Army recruiting tool), Pat Tillman was heavily critical of American foreign policy.

Like every other person in this country, athletes have the right to believe what they want and say what they want. And, like with every other person in the country, we can ignore them if they’re being dumb.

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So here’s an idea: Let’s ignore Ozzie Guillen and Luke Scott and Tim Thomas, just like we do every day with idiots from both sides of the aisle on comment boards across the Internet.

They can say what they want. Until they have something smart to say, we just won’t listen.

Should athletes take political stances? E-mail Nico at nicosavidge@gmail.com.

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