clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

As Politics Changes, "Stick To Sports" No Longer Applies.

New, comments

People say that sports journalists should never talk about politics. Now, Donald Trump has made it unavoidable.

NHL: New York Rangers at Toronto Maple Leafs
NYR's Mika Zibanejad is an NHL player who may be directly hit by the Trump administration's actions this week.
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Politics and sports. Two completely different spheres that seem to be colliding more and more often in North America recently.

On social media, there seems to be an idea among many that politics and sports shouldn't mix. How often do you see, when a sports journalist makes a political comment of any kind, the reply in their mentions along the lines of "stick to sports"?

Sports is often seen as an escape from the harsh realities of the world. With clearly defined winners and losers, a clear team to root for (therefore a clear idea of who are the "good guys" and who are the "bad", it's easy to pick a side. It's easy to know "right" or "wrong", whether that be in a refereeing decision that goes for or against your team, a result, or even a simple play.

The real world, as we know all too well, is not often like that. Shades of grey and hundreds of different views abound. Whereas in sports an opinion is often easy to back up with stats and in the simplest fashion with video replays (although these are always open to interpretation depending on your team bias), rarely in sports results arguments are we required to confront our own prejudices and realities and stand up for basic morality. We are required to all the time in "real life".

However, in the past few years, as athletes become more and more aware of their position as social influencers, there has been more of a tendency for athletes and indeed sports journalists to step out of their traditional lanes and get involved politically, whether it be endorsing political candidates or social activism.

The Bruins are a part of this trend - witness things like Brad Marchand's recent proud challenging of homophobia or the B's support of transgender rights legislation in Massachussetts to name but two - and the response to this has almost overwhelmingly been positive around most of Bruins fandom.

However, this isn't always the case in sports when athletes become involved in politics at a wider level - witness the divided reaction to NFL athletes like Colin Kaepernick and other sportspeople becoming involved in social activism on divisive topics like "Black Lives matter" and the somewhat questionable response from certain sections of hockey fandom, which we talked about as part of this piece.

Politically, hockey has always been a sport that likes to present itself as neutral. The fact that it is a sport that often requires a considerable financial investment to play in, though, means that occasionally political backgrounds come through and NHL players were noticeably politically active during the political election - witness the recent expressions of support for Donald Trump during the election campaign from players like Jack Eichel and, conversely, support for Hilary Clinton from players like Jakob Chychrun.

It is interesting that while these players often attracted reactions from hockey fans, the "stick to sports" narrative often applied to both sides with them in exactly the same way as it did with journalists. It's also interesting that when players spoke about how US political decisions affected their families, they were very careful to speak in a fairly detached fashion, and the stories that worked around them, as for example with Brandon Saad's description of how his family were effected by events in Syria, were presented as "human interest" stories.

However, Trump's administration and the current political climate has hit the NHL today with a vengeance. The Executive Order announced on Saturday to ban people from certain countries from entering the US whether or not they are US citizens, including dual nationals of those countries, and Homeland Security's insistence that they will enforce it despite the US legal system placing a stay on the order, has repercussions for NHL players that means that hockey fans will be forced to confront them.

Mika Zibanejad of the New York Rangers is Swedish-Iranian. One of the countries on the "banned citizens" list is Iran. This means that, theoretically, if Zibanejad carries Iranian nationality, he can't leave the US and expect to be allowed back in. This has obvious repercussions for any game his team plays in Canada. The Rangers, in fact, travel to Calgary next week. Do they take one of their star centers with them and risk him being trapped in Canada by the US border agency?

His father is Iranian - which means that he can't enter the US from outside under this order. Another NHL player directly affected by this order is Brandon Saad, who is, as mentioned before, first-generation Syrian-American and the son of migrants. If any of his family already in the country want to leave the US now, they won't be allowed to return to their home. His family in Syria, who are being sponsored by him to come and join him, are, as of now, barred from entering the country, even to visit.

These are two players directly affected by politics - and not only that, but there will be other NHL players watching the current situation with horror and potential worry for their own futures - specifically those who are either of Muslim ancestry or practicing Muslims - names like Nail Yakupov and Nazem Kadri.

Imagine a situation where NHL fans see their team deprived of key players because of fears that the political administration of America won't allow them back into the country. Imagine how Leafs fans would react if deprived of the opportunity to see Nazem Kadri play for their team.

This is where we are now. The NBA is already urgently investigating how the political developments will affect their league. Saturday's political act has repercussions for millions of people already - it is causing heartbreak and hardship and literally condemning people to death. It is affecting millions of human beings, including the players who you root for.

Sports fans like to pretend that sports is somehow an escape from all of this - an avoidance of it. However, the sad truth is that it isn't, and this act more than any other should convince NHL fans that in the modern world, it's impossible to ask someone to "stick to sports".

The NHL and its fans, if they were before, can no longer pretend that sport can be in any way "separate" from politics.

In the same way, there is no way that sportswriters in the NHL can ignore this.

Sports journalists are already beginning to react to this new reality - witness this tweet from ESPN's Michelle Beadle, for example.

It's time to acknowledge once and for all that politics affect human beings - and those human beings are living and working alongside us in sports, too.

When those human beings and their contemporaries are being attacked, it's the responsibility of all of us, including sportswriters, to speak up.

Whatever the coming days bring - hockey will be affected. And the NHL community cannot remain silent.

Politics is a world that often seems remote from the person in the street - the decisions made at a national level are made far easier to comprehend when people can see a tangible effect on someone or something they know.

Sports is a huge part of the public consciousness whether or not people are politically aware - and sportspeople are often seen as friends by fans. Explaining to someone how a community is affected is one thing - making that effect personal and reducing national politics to the effect on one person puts it through a lens that people can understand.

This is why the sports media needs to speak up and tell the stories of the sports stars who, along with millions like them, are being affected. People like Zibanejad and Saad. Their voices, and those of sports journalists have power to break through the noise of modern news media to those people who might be switched off from "normal" politics and let them know exactly how the decisions made in Washington affect them, wherever they are.

"Sticking to sports" is simply no longer an option.