The worlds of politics and sports tend to intersect only when there's a vested interest for the interested sporting party. Lobbying for a new stadium, for example. In part, this is by design- there's a reason politics is one of only two categories generally forbidden at non-D.C. bars. One of the big reasons people enjoy sports is precisely to get away from more serious matters. Meanwhile, most athletes prefer to keep their political views private, whether to avoid offending potential customers/endorsers, or simply because they're not all that interested in the issues. Teams are almost always apolitical.
Wednesday night in Phoenix when the Suns took the floor for their Game 2 matchup against San Antonio in their "Los Suns" jerseys (the ones worn as part of the NBA's Noche Latina program), simultaneously a celebration of the Cinco de Mayo holiday and a statement of disapproval for Arizona Senate Bill 1070, the controversial illegal immigration legislation signed by governor Jan Brewer last month.
Suns owner Robert Sarver, along with GM Steve Kerr, both spoke with unusual candidness on their disapproval of the law. Said Sarver in a statement from the team: "The frustration with the federal government's failure to deal with the issue of illegal immigration resulted in passage of a flawed state law. However intended, the result of passing this law is that our basic principles of equal rights and protection under the law are being called into question, and Arizona's already struggling economy will suffer even further setbacks at a time when the state can ill-afford them."
Major League Baseball's Players Association has also spoken out against the legislation, as have individual players like Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. There have been calls for economic boycotts of Phoenix teams, including for next year's MLB All Star Game set to take place in Phoenix, resulting in Brewer filing a column with ESPN.com in response. My point isn't to start a debate on illegal immigration, but ask a larger question: As a sports fan, are you comfortable with your team taking stances and making statements on political issues?
In California, there is no shortage of hot-button matters on the agenda. Would you want the Lakers as an organization to declare a position? Do you want to see individual players be more active in political causes?
I respect Sarver for speaking out against a law condemned by many across the country, but by all accounts very popular in Arizona. While members of his team -- Steve Nash, for example -- and individuals within Phoenix's large Latino population may be against the legislation, a huge section of Sarver's ticket-buying, Suns-consuming audience almost certainly favors it. There's a risk in alienating part of his local audience, even while drawing praise nationally.
But were I a pro-1070 fan coming to the game, would I feel as welcome? I don't know.
Athletes get criticized all the time for not taking stands, for being too focused on making sure no part of their audience is alienated. The old "Republicans wear Nike's, too" line from Micheal Jordan. The teams for which they play are generally even more issue-neutral. Mini-Switzerlands with colorful uniforms.
What I find interesting, though, isn't necessarily that we want athletes or teams to take on issues, but our issues. When we want athletes and organizations to take a stand, we want them to take our stand. Then they're brave and to be applauded for doing what's right. When they pop up on the other side, it's not nearly as cool. Even on issues where we might agree with a politically active athlete, how many times have we rolled our collective eyes and just wished a player would stick to playing the game? Certainly it's often the reaction when Hollywood stars -- a world in which activism of one type or another is far more fashionable- get political.
It's a bit of hypocrisy, sometimes driven by the media, I'd like to see stop (good luck with that). If it's important for players to "get involved," we shouldn't uniformly crush them if they do it for the other side. Respect the passion, debate civilly the opinion.
NBAPA head Billy Hunter says he believes Phoenix's stand as an organization is the start of a new era in sports, with less of a pull towards apoliticalness. I disagree. Sarver's actions will still be the exception, not the rule at least as far as teams and owners are concerned. And after a couple days marinating on it, I'm still not sure if that's a good or bad idea. On the one hand, athletes and owners are high-profile people with enormous influence. To see them be active on important issues, even if they hold beliefs different than mine, still demonstrates the importance of staying engaged. It teaches an increasingly cynical and detached generation of young people an important message.
Moreover, a lot of these guys are worthy spokesmen, have gone deep into issues, and feel passionately about a particular cause. Call Nash a Canadian long-hair if you want, but the guy has obviously spent time learning about environmental and social issues. Because they hold positions of prominence, it's important for athletes and executives to be informed when speaking out.
On the other hand, as a sports fan, I don't want to be inundated with political messages every time I go to or watch a game, even if I agree with the position. Nor do I want the inherently divisive influence of politics to corrode the natural unity sports and fandom bring about.
Statements like the Suns made Wednesday night -- peaceful, pointed, respectful, and safe for the local economy -- should be applauded but are probably best saved for very specific circumstances.
But maybe you'd rather see that change?