Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

2016: An Election Year That Pervaded Sports

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In this political year, many athletes used their celebrity to make statements about our country. We're joined now by our friend, NPR's Tom Goldman. Tom, thanks for being with us.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Michael Jordan famously said he didn't want to get involved in politics 'cause everybody buys Air Jordans. He didn't want to offend a potential customer. But LeBron James, this year, campaigned for Hillary Clinton. Tom Brady may have been for Donald Trump. He says his wife told him to be quiet about it.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter).

SIMON: Stan Van Gundy, present coach of the Detroit Pistons, blistered President-elect Trump. Steve Kerr of the Warriors followed. What's changed?

GOLDMAN: Yeah. There's an expectation now that, you know, most prominent athletes speak out on social issues, for better or for worse. It's not enough for players to just play and entertain us. And it's most pronounced in pro basketball and football, the sports with the highest percentage of African-American players. And, yes, it continued this week. As you mentioned, a lot coming from coaches. Last night, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich weighed in, railing not as much about a Republican victory as the tone leading up to Election Day. Here's part of what he said. I'm a rich, white guy, and I'm sick to my stomach thinking about it. I couldn't imagine being a Muslim right now or a woman or an African-American, a Hispanic, a handicapped person - and how disenfranchised they might feel. Now, Popovich concluded in inimitable Pop fashion by saying he fears the country is heading for a Roman-Empire-type ending.

SIMON: I - may drag the Cubs into this, as I usually do?

GOLDMAN: You may. You may.

SIMON: Jake Arietta, their great pitcher, sent out a pro-Trump tweet. Theo Epstein, their Hall of Fame general manager, supported Hillary Clinton. The Ricketts family - they own the club - is all over politically. Joe, the father, supported Trump. Marlene, the mother, funded the anyone-but-Trump movement. You may recall Donald Trump criticized the leadership of the Cubs in a tweet. Laura Ricketts, the sister, is founder of Lambda Legal and supported Hillary Clinton. She is the first openly gay co-owner of a major league sports franchise. And I like what Tom Ricketts told reporters. He said we stand up for what we believe in. We support the causes that we think are important. That's what America should be. That's who we are. Theo Epstein said, we want our players to care about their country.

GOLDMAN: Another reason to love the Cubs, Scott - not that you need one.

SIMON: Well, I keep finding new ones.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter).

SIMON: Colin Kaepernick was a - was a - was a signpost for many people in this political year.

GOLDMAN: Yeah.

SIMON: But he ended this political campaign - I was surprised - not with a bang, but with a...

GOLDMAN: Oh, this is where I say a whimper. Well...

SIMON: Well, that's how - what I'd hope you say, but if you - if you want to ad lib, go ahead.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) It was an ironic reaction from an athlete who, as you mentioned, has become a signpost, a symbol of political activism over the past couple of months. As most know, his decision to take a knee for pre-game national anthem started a movement across the country. He's been a hero to some, a pariah others because he took a stand, but Election Day, Scott, he punted. Or, you know, since he's a quarterback, let's say he threw the ball out of bounds. He didn't vote. That's made some people furious. But, you know, in his defense, he said all along he didn't like either candidate, so his no vote was actually consistent. But when he takes the field tomorrow in Arizona, he may hear a new chorus of boos for a new reason.

SIMON: Yeah. NFL ratings are down, Tom. And to - and some sports pundits have suggested it might even be because they couldn't compete with the drama of a presidential campaign. Wonder what you say to that.

GOLDMAN: Hard to compete with that, yeah. You know, it often happens in general election years that culminate in the heart of the NFL season. There's hope in the league office that now the election's over, the ratings will start to rebound, but, you know, there's more to the reported 12 percent dip in national ratings. There's a lot of criticism, and if you watch NFL games, you'll know what I'm talking about. There's a lot of criticism about officiating, blown calls by refs, too many penalty flags, the length of games. They drag on for more than three hours with maybe - what? - you know, 10 minutes or so political - football action, not political action.

SIMON: Yeah.

GOLDMAN: A lot of dead time, and much of it filled with ads for TV viewers. The NFL says it wants to speed things up. We'll see if they do that.

SIMON: I mean, we - all right. We've got 20 seconds left. And they're playing all these games in London. I love London, but the games, like, come on at 6 a.m. in the United States, which is still where most of the audience is.

GOLDMAN: Yeah. Not even fish and chips and mushy peas early in the morning would help that.

SIMON: (Laughter) You can say that, married to a wonderful British woman. NPR's Tom Goldman, thanks so much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.