Televised Sports and Politics

I’m sure you’ve seen and heard the noise in recent weeks around the topic of politics and sports. From ESPN sportscaster Jemele Hill’s critique of President Trump to the #TakeAKnee protest this past Sunday, sports and politics appear to be on a collision course. LeBron James and Steph Curry have traded tweets with President Trump regarding the Warrior’s invite to the Whitehouse.

I don’t know about you, but my social media feed is overflowing with opinions as NFL players responded today to President Trump’s comments a few days ago calling out players who have protested racism during the playing of the National Anthem.

Thankfully this is a media blog and not a political blog…so I’ll do my best to limit my comments to the issues related to the mass media industries and free speech and expression protected by the First Amendment.

Televised sports has largely been a place where fans have gone to escape politically charged issues. With a highly integrated roster, pro sports teams have actually been able to avoid much of the racially divisive issues that have troubled other sectors of society. There have been notable exceptions of course: the Black Power protest at the 1968 Olympic games, Muhammad Ali’s protest of the Vietnam War, and others.

Even though we have been experiencing a highly polarized political climate of late, TV programmers (with the exception of Sunday morning political talk shows, cable news networks, and late night comics) typically avoid political debates. When advertising revenue is your bottom line, political issues are dangerous because they risk alienating large segments of viewers who turn on their TVs to be entertained, not excoriated.

To be clear, professional athletes, like all Americans, have a First Amendment right to express their political concerns. But the First Amendment does not apply to non-governmental entities. So while the government can do nothing to penalize these protests and protestors, team owners can legally enact policies that restrict players’ rights to express themselves while representing the team. That’s how MLB owners can restrict visible tattoos that contain brands, the NBA can fine Kobe Bryant for an anti-gay slur, and any team can discipline a player for his/her private use of social media. In an interesting twist, college athletes playing for a state-school are legally much more protected for their personal use of social media since the university is an agent of the state which is an extension of government. (see more here)

P.S. No matter what you’re political opinions, you might have strong feelings about the Unsportsmanlike Conduct penalty against Von Miller in Sunday’s game against the Bills! 🙂


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