The Loop

Is it time to kill the pre-game anthem, the White House visit, and any other political-sports connection?

November 06, 2017
World Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Houston Astros - Game Four

Tom Pennington

The Houston Astros got to enjoy their World Series victory for approximately seven minutes before the inevitable question came: Will you go to the White House if Trump invites you?

Team manager A.J Hinch did what he had to do, which was to play it very neutral and give a non-answer, but if I had my guess, I bet they won't visit. We've seen the Patriots (minus a few players), Clemson, and the Pittsburgh Penguins visit recently, while the Warriors essentially refused, balking long enough for Trump to pre-emptively disinvite them. Baseball likely trends toward the conservative side of the spectrum, but only when you consider American players and American fans.

The Astros, like every major league team, have a huge Hispanic presence in their roster—among those who saw the field in Game 7 alone, there were two Venezuelans, a Puerto Rican, a Cuban, and a Dominican. They surely have intimate familiarity with the immigrant experience, and that is not exactly Trump's demographic, so my guess is that either the team will decide as a whole to abstain, or certain players will opt out while others visit.

But here's the larger question: Should they have to make that decision in the first place? The White House visit seemed, for years, like a harmless tradition, regardless of which party occupied the presidency. It didn't even really matter if someone didn't show up. Players have been dodging the White House visit for years, for various reasons, but it was never a big deal until now.

That time is over. It's no longer harmless. In fact, it's heavily polarized. Since Trump took office, though, it's become such a big deal that it has taken on that dreaded label: Distraction. It's a shadow that falls over every team who wins a championship, and there's no decision that team can make that won't leave a good chunk of their fans pissed off. Instead of celebrating the pure joy of a title, these non-political people are forced to walk on eggshells for what is essentially an act of trivial symbolism.

I think it's important for players to speak their minds, and there's no prouder tradition in America than the individual and collective expression of political opinion. But sports teams are not designed to be political entities—duh!—and I think it's time to admit that requiring them to make such a big political decision is frankly absurd. With very rare exceptions, no team will ever come to a consensus opinion on this kind of topic, which means that visiting the White House will remain a minefield until America returns to a less polarized state—which, sorry to say, is not happening in our lifetimes. So why the hell are we foisting that decision on athletes? It's like requiring the winner of the Scripps-Howard spelling bee to release a statement acknowledging global warming. It's pointless, it's irrelevant, and it's a little insane.

So why not de-politicize sports, at least from the group perspective? Why do we need a White House visit? For that matter, why do we need to play the national anthem before games? Our top-tier college and professional sports teams are filled with international players, so what does patriotism have to do with any of this? It's an athletic contest, fan loyalty rests with teams, not parties, and to tie it in with the American flag has never really made sense.

Dumping these traditions might help magnify important issues, too. Individuals would still demonstrate, but in the absence of structured patriotic displays, fans would have to engage with their actual ideas, rather than retreating to the broad accusation of dishonoring the troops (or whatever). At the same time, those who look to sports as a retreat from politics wouldn't be inundated with either overt patriotism or the reactions against it. It could restore the safe space that so many of us seem to need.

The bottom line is that traditions like the pre-game anthem, the White House champion visits, and even the relatively recent military pomp and circumstance displays, have no real relation to sports. They were started for strange and occasionally self-interested reasons, and the nobility of the gesture has long since disappeared.

In the strictest sense, the anthem doesn't belong at a sporting event any more than a Wall Street stock ticker would. It was forced onto the game for reasons that seemed harmless at the time, but is now completely divisive. Why not just get rid of it, and the rest of the political pageantry, and thereby remove some of the friction? In other words, make sports sports again.

And now, your weekly superlatives.

The Angry and Profane Basketball Coach One-Two Punch of the Week: Kerr and Popovich

It's always awesome when the Warriors and Spurs get together—they've been the class of the Western Conference for a long time now, and have combined to win three of the last five NBA championships. (If LeBron James didn't exist, it would be six-for-six.) Along with an insane cast of superstars, these teams also have the smartest, best coaches in the league in Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich. The two are friends, but when their teams meet, the competitive juices flow. When they played on Thursday (an eventual Warriors victory), Kerr got the anti-ref action going early. Trigger warning to anyone who can read lips (or text, I guess):

Amazingly, he didn't get kicked out for this tirade. The same cannot be said for Popovich, who was not to be outdone later in the game. Again, have the volume down, don't read lips:

There are a few ways to react here. Should they be providing better examples for our precious children? Sure, probably. On the other hand, is it pretty sweet to see two of the best in the game at the height of their powers, living and dying over game nine of the regular season? Also yes. This is another reason why the NBA is America's best professional sports league in 2017.

The Actually Sincere Apology of the Week: Steve Kerr

Last week, I wrote about how we're mired in the era of the extremely dumb apology. This week, Steve Kerr showed me that all is not lost. Here's what he had to say about his aforementioned outburst:

"I need to do better. Honestly, I need to do better," he said. "That was embarrassing. My daughter sent me the meme of it. It was all over the Internet. I just hung my head in shame. I am very passionate and intense, but I can't use that kind of wording. I would never say that to anybody in a normal setting. It's just awful. When I saw that, I was like, 'Oh, my God. What's the matter with me?'"

He later said: "I'm always going to get on refs to stick up for my guys, and that's the point, but I can't use that kind of language."

(Looks around Internet...)

The "Never Do This" Football Move of the Week: The Hurdle

The upside of a hurdle is that you show off your athletic ability, keep a play going, and—most importantly—make the defender look like a total stooge. There's nothing better in sports than a successful play that also humiliates your opponent. It's why we love crossover dribbles that result in a defender tripping over his own ankles, or a between-the-legs nutmeg pass in soccer, or a nasty curve that results in a batter swinging so hard that he falls over. In this sense, a hurdle is good.

The downside? Attempt a hurdle, and you might get hit in the nuts by a football helmet. And though this particular scenario has never happened to me (it's easy not to hurdle when your vertical leap is approximately four inches), I feel confident saying that the prospect of being hit in the nuts by a helmet is worse than anything you might gain from a successful hurdle. The risk is too great, my friends, so let's chisel the rule in stone: Never hurdle.

Now, if only someone had told LSU's Russell Gage:

That photograph actually hurts me.

The "There Are No Good Guys Here" Incident of the Week: Drunk fan vs. Cop

This is not good:

There's no defending anyone in that video, so I'm not even going to try. Today, we are all that guy at the end—holding a beer, casting his eyes downward, and wishing he were anywhere else.