John Elway's support for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch has brought out hypocrisies from both sides of the political spectrum.
On Monday, Colorado Springs Gazette reporter Peter Marcus tweeted an image of a letter penned by Elway to the Senate Judiciary Committee in which the Hall of Famer and current Denver Broncos executive declares, "Neil is a big Denver Broncos fan, and I can tell you that I'm a big fan of his."
— Peter Marcus (@MediaMarcus) March 20, 2017
Almost immediately, many sportswriters noted that Elway wasn't getting anywhere near the backlash faced by athletes such as Colin Kaepernick and Brandon Marshall, who knelt during the national anthem and support groups like Black Lives Matter. If the common refrain is "stick to sports" whenever athletes -- particularly athletes of color -- use their platform to elevate political issues, many wondered why Elway wasn't being held to the same standard.
Elway is certainly enjoying better treatment and support from the same fans who were so quick to condemn Kaepernick or burn Marshall jerseys. And there are several reasons why that might be the case. The two men and their actions don't quite form a perfect one-to-one comparison; Elway is a legend, while teams thus far have apparently deemed Kaepernick's talent expendable. On the other hand, it's hard to equate taking a stance for civil rights and against police brutality -- positions that ideally shouldn't lie on any one side of the aisle -- to outright endorsing a political appointee, let alone one who is seeking a lifetime appointment through which he would help shape policy for decades to come.
Elway's letter is printed on stationery that prominently features the Broncos logo. Broncos spokesman Patrick Smyth was quick to correct reports that the letterhead was official team stationery, though that seems like semantics given the presence of the logo, Elway's invocation of the team and his position as both executive vice president of football operations and general manager included in his signature.
The use of the Broncos logo and Elway's position on the stationery is where things start to get ethically murky. First of all, it seems wholly unnecessary; Elway's name itself carries more weight than the Broncos logo or his current executive role with the team. Beyond that, the stationery elevates the use of the platform to imply tacit support from the team. When Kaepernick answers questions about Black Lives Matter in a San Francisco jersey, it's clear that he's speaking as an individual who, yes, represents the team, but in no way speaks for the 49ers as an organization. That's less clear with Elway, whose positioning within Denver football culture is bigger than the Broncos.
In sports, it's difficult to discuss these seeming double standards without acknowledging the disdain within sports culture, and among fans particularly, toward athletes vs. the front office. Many would argue that Elway gets a pass on his politics compared to Kaepernick because he's of much greater value to his team -- and they're not wrong.
The problem is that, while Elway's playing career was certainly more successful and decorated than Kaepernick's, this judgment also takes into account the perceived value of labor's vs. management's contributions -- an idea that's also impossible to wholly separate from race. Fans tend to resent the high earnings of players who take positions with which those fans disagree, expecting athletes to take their paycheck, keep their heads down and simply "do their job" -- the implication being that they're lucky to even have one. We're seeing this play out right now in the unseemly, gleeful rhetoric around Kaepernick's struggle to sign with a team.
On the other hand, executives and owners are treated as deserving businessmen, economic producers who've earned their wider leeway. If Elway gets a pass, it's because he tends to garner more respect -- because he's a Hall of Famer, because he's an executive, because he's white or some combination thereof. Of course, those notions of the value of labor vs. management also tend to align with particular sides of the political spectrum, so it makes sense that those who favor management would be more sympathetic to Elway's world view.
The notion that athletes have ever truly stuck to sports is in itself a fallacy. Sports and politics have been forever intertwined; the only thing that's changed over the years is the size and reach of the platform and its availability to historically marginalized voices. With that in mind, then, it's important to remain consistent in our reactions to sports figures who actively participate in politics, even if we don't agree with their particular position. As I fully support Kaepernick using his platform to engage in protest, I can't then turn around and criticize Elway for endorsing a nominee whose policy stances might not align with my own.
While we must acknowledge the subtle differences and nuances between Elway and Kaepernick, let's not shy away from pulling the many threads that comprise their disparate treatment -- or from ensuring that we react consistently in such cases based on principle, and not politics.