It’s a phrase constantly thrown around.
“Stick to sports.”
“I don’t watch sports to talk about politics.”
“Keep politics out of sports.”
Athletes shouldn’t have to stick to sports. Sports encompass every walk of life. Players of every race, gender, and sexuality participate in them, so when it comes to issues affecting those who play sports, why should they have to be quiet about them?
If a player faces sexism, racism, or homophobia and wants to speak out, their status as an athlete shouldn’t nullify that. Sports should be a place of acceptance, a place to start these critical conversations, and not shut down because the sanctity of sport is “ruined” by conversations of equality.
On Saturday, the NWSL Challenge Cup opened with players lined up for the national anthem dressed in Black Lives Matter shirts. The majority of the players from the Washington Spirit and Chicago Red Stars, and all the players from the Portland Thorns and North Carolina Courage kneeled during the national anthem to protest police brutality peacefully.
If you look through social media reactions to this, you’ll see an overwhelming amount of comments in support of these players, and comments telling them this is not their place and political opinions don’t belong in sports.
If anything though, this is entirely their place.
Athletes live and work in the same world we do; their status as an athlete doesn’t eliminate them from oppression and disrespect. Their status as an athlete shouldn’t eliminate their ability to speak out on issues that are important to them.
If Casey Short, a Chicago Red Stars defender, wants to kneel for the national anthem because, as a black woman in America, she wants to exercise her right to protest the injustice she faces, that belongs in sports.
If the English Premier League wants to have Black Lives Matter on all their players’ jerseys for a weekend, that belongs in sports.
If the Bundesliga wants to have a moment of silence for the Black Lives Matter movement, that belongs in sports.
We don’t get to decide when the players and leagues we watch use their voices.
Casey Short — and likely every other black athlete in the Western world — has faced injustice in their careers and lives because of the color of their skin. Telling them to stick to sports and not speak out about the injustice they suffered is disrespectful to the athletes as people.
Just because someone kicks a ball for a living does not mean they lose their freedom of speech. If any player wants to exercise their freedom of speech to protest injustices they or their teammates have faced, fans have no place to tell them otherwise.
This is no different than teams who are promoting Pride Month celebrations. In 2016, the Timbers Army created a tifo for their Pride Night, which stated, “love is a human experience, not a political statement,” a simple statement that perfectly captures why soccer shouldn’t just stick to soccer. Encouraging everyone’s acceptance and starting a conversation is more important than the score of any game ever will be.
Still, you hear people saying the classic line: “I’m not homophobic, but I don’t think this needs to be pushed in sports.” Acceptance comes in a lot of ways, and normalizing and celebrating the LGBTQ+ community is a massive part of that.
Just the same as people are talking about racial inequality because of the racism athletes face; we have to talk about homophobia the same way to change the narrative and promote equality for all.
These conversations start in sports.
We should be arguing over whether LAFC or LA Galaxy is the most unbearable team in MLS, not whether someone deserves rights because of the color of their skin, gender, or sexual orientation.
These conversations shouldn’t be shied away from for fear of being controversial. Sticking to sports shouldn’t be the norm, promoting equality for all in a world that doesn’t have it should be.
Having a tifo in support of the LGBTQ+ community shouldn’t be controversial. Having players wear Black Lives Matter shirts shouldn’t be controversial. Movements that promote nothing more than love and equality shouldn’t be controversial. Yet these movements become controversial because there are people who are okay with taking away basic human rights and people who aren’t.
Next time you find yourself wondering why you see so much activism in sports, remember it’s because the athletes you love to watch are people first — people who face racism, sexism, and homophobia in their lives.
Don’t dismiss people who experience discrimination and tell them to keep kicking a ball just because you aren’t ready to have an open and honest conversation about the oppression the athletes you love have faced.
Black lives matter, love is love, and the athletes trying to normalize the acceptance of these statements most definitely do not need to stick to sports.