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In 2017, Sports Was A Battleground For National Events


We're near the end of a year when the wall between sports and the rest of the news crumbled. People would like to think of sports as an escape - it's never entirely so. Sports reflect a changing society. Just think of the triumph of Jackie Robinson in a segregated America, or think of Muhammad Ali refusing the draft during Vietnam.

We brought in two of our favorite sportswriters to talk through the way sports have again become a battleground for national events. Christine Brennan writes a column for USA Today, and Kevin Blackistone writes for The Washington Post. So we asked both of you to nominate some sports stories that reflect the world beyond the playing field.

And, Kevin, why don't you go first?

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Well, I thought one was Donald Trump and how he went on an attack against athletes and sports almost all year long, in particular, black athletes like Colin Kaepernick and the protests that he carried out with the anthem and the flag as a backdrop.

INSKEEP: And let's remember, Colin Kaepernick began this protest relating to the national anthem before Donald Trump was president. This has been going on for a while.

BLACKISTONE: Exactly, been going on since 2016. And it's a protest against police lethality against unarmed black men in this country.

INSKEEP: Christine, what do you make of the fact that Kaepernick has been unable to play the entire season?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Well, that is unfortunate because you would have thought, especially after Trump inserted himself into this story in late September in the Alabama Senate race of all things, and while the reaction was extraordinary - hundreds of players protesting that week and then the next and the next - I really thought at that point that a team might pick up Kaepernick.

BLACKISTONE: But I think, you know, the interesting thing is Kaepernick got a lot of support over the year. He wound up on the cover of GQ. SI gave him the Muhammad Ali award. His jersey jersey's still one of the top-selling jerseys in the league. So a lot of people did not turn him off and, in fact, embraced his protests.

BRENNAN: And I think history will judge. I mean, in 50 years when kids are studying cultural history at this time, Kaepernick and the protest is going to be a part of what they're studying.

INSKEEP: Isn't this just one of several ways that the president has found sports to be a battlefield for him?

BLACKISTONE: Absolutely. I mean, we saw his attack on the Golden State Warriors when Steph Curry said that he didn't want to visit the White House, which has become routine for championship teams.

INSKEEP: And the Warriors' coach, Steve Kerr, has been critical of the president and some of his policies.

BLACKISTONE: Absolutely. And then LeBron James popped into the fray and tweeted that the president was a bum. Jemele Hill on...


BLACKISTONE: ...ESPN came out and tweeted that Donald Trump was a white supremacist, which caused a furor at ESPN. And the network was attacked, and they had to suspend her. And she had to issue an apology. So yeah, it's been a - it's been sports politicized like we've never seen before.

INSKEEP: What's another way that sports have intersected with the news?

BRENNAN: Well, the Me Too movement. We saw it with the star gymnasts Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney, Gabby Douglas, all of them talking about the sexual abuse that they suffered as gymnasts while they were winning medals for the nation that we're - everyone's cheering for them. So troubling in USA Gymnastics and what they didn't do.

INSKEEP: This has got to be especially troubling throughout sports because people play so young and maybe on a national stage or traveling or whatever so young.

BRENNAN: Well, and also an Olympic team. So, for example, U.S. swimming has had this issue for a long time. And the U.S. Olympic Committee is finally starting something called Safe Sport, a center to try to have a clearinghouse for this, but it is - it's an ongoing problem.

INSKEEP: Are there corners of the sporting world that have tried to be a leader on this issue?

BLACKISTONE: Certainly, women's sports that are led by women in the aftermath of the birth of Title IX, I think we've seen it there. But it's interesting that so many of these sports are sports involving women that are led by men or are men's sports in which women work and have had to face these problems of harassment as well as discrimination, and in some instances straight out assault.

BRENNAN: I would say a positive though that we've seen of recently was - is the Jerry Richardson story.


BRENNAN: So Jerry Richardson, the owner of the Carolina Panthers, former NFL player, he's the founder of the Panthers - and a incredibly damning, troubling story by Sports Illustrated of at least four issues where he settled with female employees. Awful comments, wanting women to be in his car and then he would seatbelt them in, massages, just on and on it goes. And that story broke on a - I think it was a Friday, and by Sunday, he was basically done. And Monday, he officially left the team. That's the owner of the team gone within 72 hours.

INSKEEP: Kevin, I know there's a somewhat different issue involving women that's on your mind because of a star tennis player.

BLACKISTONE: Serena Williams. What a year she had for an athlete, for a human being and specifically for women as an example. She won the Australian Open while pregnant. She would later give birth to a healthy baby. She had many of us discussing whether or not she's not the GOAT, the greatest athlete of our time, still active today. She's in her...

INSKEEP: That would be GOOT (ph), I think - G-O-O-T. But anyway, go on. Go on. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to...

BLACKISTONE: And then I thought she did something really interesting that kind of went overlooked. Maria Sharapova wrote a memoir in which she took some shots at Serena Williams, criticizing Serena Williams's body type - thick legs, big arms, that sort of thing. And Serena Williams responded by writing an open letter to her mother - Serena Williams's mother - in which part of it she celebrated her looks. She celebrated the black aesthetic when it comes to the female body. And I thought that was really reassuring. I thought it was affirming of black beauty, and I thought it was an important thing for her to do for the girls who look up to her.

BRENNAN: Well, and, Kevin, when you think about it, you know, Serena's 36, and Venus - her sisters's 37. And they're still winning or in the finals of Grand Slam events this past year. It's an extraordinary run. We will never see anything like it again. They have been tremendous role models for our daughters and our nieces and the girl next door. We should all be thanking the Williams sisters.

INSKEEP: Is there one more occasion you could name where sports have collided with the news?

BRENNAN: Well, I will say this, and a real positive - Houston. When you look at the city of Houston, Steve, obviously Hurricane Harvey, the devastation. Who doesn't remember the pictures of the water up to the signs on the interstate? Just horrifying. And then the turnaround - within a few weeks, the Houston Astros baseball team, the team that was so lousy a few years ago and yet that experiment - Sports Illustrated calling it three years ago, saying this is going to be the World Series champ in 2017. And lo and behold, it happens and Houston wins. Sports is a feel-good. Sports is this, you know, it sometimes - it sounds like a cliche, oh, brings us together - well, in this case, it does.

INSKEEP: Sometimes it does.

BLACKISTONE: It does, sure. Absolutely.

INSKEEP: Christine Brennan of USA Today, thank you very much.

BRENNAN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And Kevin Blackistone of The Washington Post. Thank you.

BLACKISTONE: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABSTRAKT IDEA'S "LOVELY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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