Over the break, discussions around the family dinner table in houses across the country were often centered around the question: “When is it okay to separate art from the artist?” Even though people have been debating the answer to this question for many years, the frequency of this discussion has increased dramatically following sexual abuse allegations against many prominent members of the entertainment community (Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., etc.) over the past few months. As a sports fan, I think it is important to ask similar questions about the athletes and sports organizations that we support. How do we value a person’s athletic achievements in the context of their personal views and actions? What does it mean to watch a match of (i.e., support financially) an athlete or team that has done something we disagree with? Often times there is not a clear answer to these questions, and even when there is a clear answer, it is quite difficult to figure out what to do about it.
To illustrate the importance of this issue, I want to share one of my favorite tweets, which is from the satirical account PFTCommenter (which uses poor spelling and grammar on purpose). On Oct. 5, 2017, after Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton made a sexist remark towards a female reporter and only apologized after he lost an endorsement deal, PFTCommenter tweeted: “If cam newton think’s were just going to forget about his misstreatment of women hes sorely mistaken. Need a TD here from Jameis Winston btw.” For reference, Jameis Winston is another NFL quarterback, and among a few allegations was most notably investigated for rape (no charges were filed by the state) in 2013 while at Florida State University in a highly controversial case where the Tallahassee Police and university obstructed justice to protect Winston. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, this is not a one–off case. After an athlete does something we as a society disagree with, sports fans are quick to denounce them, but when that player is making plays for our team we are often willing to overlook our principles. Although on first glance how we feel about athletes appears to be unrelated to the world at large, when we value points (touchdowns) so much that esteemed organizations are willing to obstruct justice in a rape case for them and it is not a big story, it is clear that as a society we have decided to separate the athlete from the person, and that it is highly problematic.
I think it is easy but misguided to take out aggression on the team that signs or fails to cut the player that has done something that we disagree with. There really is a systematic issue in this country with how we value athletes, especially with males in high-profile sports, and focusing too much on one specific example can take away from this fact. What I believe the best thing sports fans can do to directly enact change: stop watching games and consuming sports media to use our economic power. This will make a statement that sports do not come before principles, and due to its economic nature (people care about ratings and views!), is the most likely to cause an alteration of practices on the institutional level.
However, my proposed direct solution does not address the fundamental issue of why in America we separate athletic achievements and hold them above other actions and traits. In no other country is athletic success considered such a sign of positive character; just look at the number of former collegiate and professional athletes in Congress. I can’t adequately describe it, but, like most things in this country, I am aware that our feelings about athletes are deeply related to more fundamental issues of race, class, sexuality and power. Like most discussions in the sports world right now, I think talking about this is best framed in terms of Colin Kaepernick, both in the way he is redefining the intersection of athlete and person, and in the way he is successfully getting Americans to think critically about these fundamental issues. I think that supporting Kaepernick and similar causes may actually be the best way to affect long-term change in this area, though it is quite indirect. While supporting these more long-term causes, I ask you to consider making at least a small change to your own life: watch one or two games fewer than you usually would this year, and write to the league office about why you have chosen to do so.
Contact Ben Spar at bspar ‘at’ stanford.edu.