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Hey, can we stop celebrating an athlete's injury because of politics?

December 11, 2017

I hate, hate, hate when sports writers get on a soap box and start to lecture. It happens a lot, it's always condescending, and it never really feels important. A few years ago, when I mostly wrote about college basketball, one of my least favorite annual traditions was suffering through a rash of articles about the etiquette of court rushing. You may not know this, but apparently there's a dense rule book dictating when it's appropriate for college students to storm a court after their team wins, with thousands of bylaws and sub-sections and appendices and codicils. Who knew that my take on the subject—"who cares? Let them have fun"—was so simplistic and naive. In the NFL, we have scolds who like to police touchdown celebrations (oddly enough, the writers who fixate on "decency" rarely show interest in tackling subjects like CTE). In baseball, the phrase "unwritten rule" is a genre to itself. And on and on and on.


Point is, I don't want to lecture. I want to live and let live. But something pretty ugly happened this weekend, and I think it bears a little examination for the behavior it reveals, and for the hypocrisy of the "stick to sports" crowd.

It actually started last week, when an interview with downhill skiier and Olympic gold medalist Lindsey Vonn aired on CNN. She was asked whether she would visit the White House if she won a gold medal in the upcoming Olympic games in Korea, and her answer was an emphatic "no." She didn't mention the president by name, and didn't really elaborate beyond saying, "I want to represent our country well. I don't think that there are a lot of people currently in our government that do that." A day later, she defended her comments: "I mean, it's not necessarily my place to be sticking my nose in politics, but as an athlete I do have a voice."

We all know what she meant, of course, and I'm not here to argue the rightness or wrongness of her opinion. I believe she has the right to express that opinion, and nothing else really matters. In fact, the story didn't make huge waves when it came out—Vonn is certainly not the first athlete to express an anti-Trump position, and she's nowhere near the most prominent.

The story didn't gain real steam until Saturday, when Vonn suffered a back injury while racing in Switzerland. The injury kept her out of Sunday's race, but likely won't hurt her chances of competing in Korea next month. The reaction, though...the reaction was not great. Let's start on the mild end of the spectrum, with Fox News:

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Now, if you read that tweet without context, you might be tempted to give them a pass. She did suffer a back injury, and she did make political comments a bit earlier. But because we know Fox News is a conservative media outlet, and because the two events are linked in a way that that's head-scratching at best, we can make an educated guess that this isn't purely innocent. It seems like Fox is either implying some kind of karmic causation—presidential voodoo—or at least winking to its readers—as in, "look what happened to the outspoken liberal."

If that sounds conspiratorial, consider the way Trump's overt fans are reacting. To put it mildly, they do not feel the need to disguise their delight, or to express it in coded language. On Reddit's "The Donald," there are scads of posts mocking Vonn, celebrating her injury, and promoting the karmic justice angle. It's nasty stuff, but if you want to see it for yourself, you can visit the two most popular threads—each with thousands of upvotes—here and here.

When Fox News issues a headline tying the two events together, this is the base they're signaling. And apparently it was too much even by their standards, because two hours after I first saw it Sunday morning, the tweet had been deleted. More than one thousand replies, most of them angry, will do that. Fox also changed the headline of the actual story:

Again, each person should be free to safely express their own political opinion, whether it's in a CNN interview or an anonymous Internet forum. But if nothing else, I'd like to promote some awareness here, and at least ask the question: Are we really so low that we'll celebrate the injury of an athlete who has different political beliefs? That we'll cheer on the potential end of her dream, and indirectly root against American Olympic interests, for a fleeting bit of crude schadenfreude? I hope not. But if it's true, I hope there's also a better, more dignified future where we can look back at episodes like this one and shake our heads.

On to the superlatives!

The "I Don't Want to Be on a Poster" Intelligent Coward of the Week: Rudy Gobert, Jazz

Gobert could have attempted to stop Giannis here. He really could have. He did not.

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That's the kind of cowardice I can relate to! Once, when I was playing safety in 7th grade and had a post-pubescent monster charging at me through a wide-open hole, I stepped to the side in fear, and then grabbed his facemask as he ran by and brought him down. It was the most obvious penalty in football history, and easily the most shameful moment of my athletic career. In other words, Rudy Gobert is my spirit animal.

The "You're Going on a Poster Anyway" Human God of the Week: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

Giannis is absolutely insane, and Gobert should have known he couldn't hide forever. You just make it worse by running, Rudy.

The Sport That Just Won Me Back of the Week: Baseball

Two months ago, I wrote about how technology has destroyed my attention span and ruined baseball for me. I can still get excited for the playoffs when my team, the Yankees, are involved, but it's hard for me to follow a full season, much less watch a full regular season game the way I used to. Then this happened:

That screeching sound you just heard was the Yankee bandwagon coming to a sudden halt. Why? Because I just threw my entire body in front of it to ensure that the driver would stop and let me on. I know there's no precedent for this, and it will sound completely hysterical, but the Yankees are going to win every World Series for the next decade, and I am going to spend each day drinking a gallon of Boston tears.

The "This Proves It's Okay to Mix Sports and Politics" Tweet of the Week: Spike Friedman

Baker Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy on Saturday, which is fine, but it produced what I consider to be two of the funniest tweets of the year. (Full disclosure, Spike Friedman is a friend of mine. Neither he nor I will make money from this.) Tell me it's not also astoundingly accurate:

The lesson here: Next time you want to mix sports and politics, and the choice is between making a funny tweet or doing cartwheels over some woman's spine injury, choose the former.