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David Sirota
David Sirota
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The End of "Shut Up and Play"


As high-profile events periodically prove, politics and athletics have long had a love-hate relationship, the affinity ebbing and flowing with the cultural tides. In the tumultuous 1960s, for instance, stars like Muhammed Ali, Arthur Ashe and John Carlos used their notoriety to embolden the major social movements of the time. Then came the 1980s and 1990s, which saw the sports world depoliticized in an age of "Just Do It" and "greed is good." For every Charles Barkley using Nike commercials to forward social messages about role models, there were far more Michael Jordans who avoided any political statements whatsoever.

Skip forward to 2012 — a superheated moment primed by seething protest campaigns and a divisive presidential election. Not surprisingly, the sports world has again shifted, becoming just as politically fraught as the society it entertains — and whether or not you agree with a particular sports icon's opinion, the larger change is a welcome development for participatory democracy.

In the last few years, we've seen sports activism at every locus on the ideological continuum. On the right, football phenom Tim Tebow starred in an anti-abortion Superbowl ad. In the transpartisan middle, Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas refused to attend the White House's Stanley Cup ceremony because he said he "believe(s) the Federal government has grown out of control." And on the left, Major League Baseball teams have led public campaigns against anti-gay bullying.

No matter the issue, sports are now involved. The NFL players association has proudly supported public workers' high profile fights. Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen (clumsily) highlighted the hypocrisy of an American government that at once embraces various dictators but shuns Cuba's autocratic regime. And, of course, LeBron James organized Miami Heat players into a hoodie-themed photo in solidarity with those demanding an investigation into the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

James's move best highlights the veering undercurrents.

As the Bleacher Report's Ryne Hodkowski noted, the NBA star for years mimicked Jordan and other 1990s-molded "corporate athletes who don't say anything political in fear of losing a big-time contract."

Now, though, even carefully managed figures like James are weighing in on national controversies. Such moves exemplify both personal courage and, as important, an America that has suddenly become politically engaged. Indeed, fans now expect their sports deities to embrace that new normal — and, as James shows, those deities are increasingly responding to the call.

Many criticize this transformation, insisting that athletes should play ball and keep quiet about anything else. Summing up that belief in the wake of Guillen's impolitic comments, Politico's Jonathan Allen declared that athletes should "just shut up" and play.

On the surface, the jeremiad may seem perfectly reasonable — but its deeper suppositions are abhorrently elitist and anti-democratic. They assume that only certain kinds of establishment-vetted individuals — specifically, professional political operatives, politicians, pundits and reporters — have standing to promote political causes.

That sentiment should be offensive not just to athletes, but to anyone not of the professional political class. Because really, if a baseball manager or a basketball player somehow has no right to speak out, why should a plumber or a factory worker have that right?

In a political culture constantly paying homage to the working-class creed, few would — or should — say that such blue collar laborers must simply "shut up and work." It should be the same standard for athletes. The more these public figures exercise their right to speak out on major issues, the more they help teach younger generations that politics is not a game only for Washington, D.C. elites, nor a punchline only to laugh at during the Daily Show — but a critical battle of ideas that requires everyone's participation.

David Sirota is a best-selling author of the new book "Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now." He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado. E-mail him at, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at



5 Comments | Post Comment
I don't think the concern is if the athlete is allowed to speak then the little one must have a voice too. I think it is simplier than that. The sports star will be heard initially simply because they are a star. This limits the political operatives to control the message to the masses. The masses have no automatic, assumed access to the mass media that the star has.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Daniel Becker
Fri Apr 13, 2012 9:12 AM
Imagine Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann sitting next to eachother at a ballgame.

They don't know eachother (bags over their heads if the image suits you).
Limbaugh is temporarily out of cigars.
And the subject of politics never comes up.

Under these conditions, my belief is Olbermann and Limbaugh would have a great time enjoying the game.
Both have knowledge and appreciation of sport any arguments would be over an umpire's call, managerial strategy or whether a player is hustling enough.

That's one of the beauties of sport it allows people of different ages, classes, genders, races and from varied backgrounds to come together.

And that's one of my objections to sports being co-opted as a platform for political expression.
I understand the freedom issue but it spoils the magic.

It also disrespects fans who paid to see the game, not witness sportpolitik.
And it exploits the athletes who have worked hard to earn their positions and may not agree with whatever cause is being pushed.

There should be a way to escape from the issues of the day ESPECIALLY in an election year.

Such a shame.
Comment: #2
Posted by: oddsox
Sat Apr 14, 2012 7:11 AM
Re: oddsox

I do not think the political show hosts believe every single word they say. How many people do any of us know have beliefs that comply exactly to a political parties platform to a tee. No one I know. So why am I to believe that Limbaugh or Obermann do. Its that they have an audience like any other entertainer and they need to say what appeals to thier customers.
Comment: #3
Posted by: SCOTT
Mon Apr 16, 2012 3:16 AM
If the athlete opposed the mostly liberal views of the media you can bet they would be stopped. Say if Labron said he fully supported Zimmermans rights to own and carry a weapon and he was sure that he was innocent he would have been shut up in a second.
Comment: #4
Posted by: david
Fri Apr 20, 2012 11:53 AM
The second someone uses the term "liberal media" to describe the corporate media I know they are full of sh*t. The corporate media is no more liberal than the right-wing corporations and media elite that own them. The closest thing you get to a true liberal media these days is a few hours a day on Current TV and MSNBC. The right perpetuates the myth in order to destract people from the truth. Whenever a right-winger is caught with their pants down they just scream "liberal media" so they don't have to confront the truth. What would happen if Labron said he supported Zimmerman? Well first Fox so-called news would be all over it praising him 24 hours a day, then Drudge would run with it and spread it all over the internet, then Rush would pick up on it, pass it on over to the rest of right wing talk radio, then the Today show and ABC/CBS would pick up on it because "everyone's talking about the smart thing Labron said", and its back to cable on CNN, PBS, NPR and daytime MSNBC which report on it free of facts and objective perspective. Finally the evening shows on MSNBC and Current will try to present another side of the story but by then it's too late. What would be the result? Labron is a hero, Travon is a "thug", and somehow Obama is to blame for all of it.
Comment: #5
Posted by: A Smith
Sun Apr 22, 2012 12:30 PM
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