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Keep politics out of sports, they said

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It’s been true on Sounder at Heart, and will remain mostly true. Except it isn’t true at all, sports and politics can be great together.

Copa America - United States vs. Ecuador: Photos

“Stick to sports.” “Keep politics out of sports.” “I just want to escape from that and focus on sports.”

These are common phrases when sports and politics connect. It’s part of why Sounder at Heart has a “No politics” policy in comments. But these all ignore that some of America’s greatest moments are when sports and politics intersect.

Can you imagine an America that didn’t have a Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson? Imagine an America without a Roberto Clemente. America without Tommie Smith and John Carlos is a worse America. Jesse Owens is a hero. Brandi Chastain is a hero.

At one point in my life I created an independent study called “Sports as cross-cultural communication in the modern Middle East.” It focused on events like the US and Iran wrestling exchange, Israeli and Saudi Arabian Little League competition, an Israeli-Palestinian woman who competes in martial arts as a citizen of Israel. Those exchanges are also possible in soccer. In just a few months Cuba will host the United States in a soccer friendly. One of the noble goals of Qatar 2022 was to help “The West” understand the Arab world just a bit better. Sports and politics mix quite a bit. Soccer and politics are intertwined throughout history.

But at the same time, sports is an avoidance. That is probably why I’m a sports fan. As a soldier in the US Army, sports, mostly baseball and basketball, were how I avoided thinking about the Army. It was how I avoided thinking about having a “go bag.” Sports helped me maintain a connection with home despite a deployment to Kuwait (in ‘97, I was blessed). This was also where I experienced my first national team experiences, as Kuwait hosted Saudi Arabia and Qatar trying to qualify for World Cup 1998.

Like so many deployed troops I watched a Super Bowl at an ungodly hour. I would try to plan meals around what the mess hall would show on TV. Those games helped me avoid thinking about a hostile border, the fact I could never leave base without a gas mask and the aircraft carrier stationed and ready just off the coast. Now, after nearly 15 years of war in Afghanistan, Iraq and several other countries there are millions more who escape through sports.

Sports are also an amazing unifier. Just think back to September of 2001. Baseball stopped. The NFL stopped. When they came back it helped us heal, if only a bit. The people of New York looked to the Yankees for hope, and though they fell short of the title New York felt some joy after so much pain. When the Super Bowl came along in 2002 the U2 hosted halftime show helped the nation heal some pain. We needed some healing, and sports was part of how we were able to do so.

Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reed, Jeremy Lane, Megan Rapinoe and Brandon Marshall (this group will continue to grow for several weeks) are telling you that their communities are hurting right now. They are asking you to listen to some grievances by sitting or kneeling during the National Anthem. This action is getting noticed precisely because sports can be our escape, and also because sport’s greatest heroes are those that have challenged society to be better.

Over the past several days the Sounder at Heart coverage of these events focused on Rapinoe, her actions and the actions of those who oppose her use of the anthem to spark conversation about racial inequality and social justice.

For a site that has said for eight years “no politics” this may seem counter to our standards. There are times when those standards need to be ignored. This is one of those times.

People in my two greatest communities (the soldiers with whom I served and Sounder at Heart) are being asked to help other communities heal. We are being asked to listen. We are being asked to continue on an American path towards lofty ideals of liberty and justice for all.

If you do not want sports in your politics or politics in your sports you can ignore the stories. The headlines will be rather clear.

If you want to discuss or learn from others who may be suffering in ways you do not we will help. Our comments sections regarding Rapinoe’s participation in these events are not just celebrations of her action. Instead, they are communications between multiple sides of complex issues regarding race and sexuality in America. Without politics and sport this issue gets ignored. With politics in sports it gets turned into a nasty, bitter debate regarding valuation of veterans versus the First Amendment.

As Matt Ufford, another veteran, points out, we are being asked to listen. Our broad communities need us. Sounder at Heart can host such a dialogue, because we are people who trust each other. Our different experiences shared honestly can help others heal. Just as our joint experiences helped us heal in the past.

But we also are not going to just cover the actions of Rapinoe and other Seattle soccer players that participate in kneeling or other protests asking for us to spend a tiny bit of time talking about social justice and racism in America.

Sounder at Heart is going to find some people to talk about how these issues appear within our soccer community. These may be difficult stories to read. The emotional weight of them will be heavy. It is necessary, because those kneelers are begging us to listen and help.

Sports and politics can be great together, especially with a mature and willing audience. Jim did everything. Jesse ran. Jackie hit. Roberto caught. Tommy and John raised. Brandi flashed. Warren threw. Sherman wrote. Megan came out. Colin knelt.

We listen. We act. We improve.