How grievance splintered American sports

How grievance splintered American sports


At this sports crime scene, a great myth suffered a random death. The games we love lost their unifying superpower here. It ruptured in a sound bite.

Some consider Donald Trump the culprit, but he was just the closer. Tension was already there, prime for manipulation. Seven years ago, during a political rally at the Von Braun Center, Trump used his presidential privilege to finish the job. With one vulgar and meandering diatribe against protesting NFL players, he made American sports civility collapse. It seems no one cares to rebuild it.

The president shouted: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say: ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’ ”

His taunt became the soundtrack for sports discord.

It spawned a countermovement that politicizes the arena in ways more blatant than athletes railing against inhumanity. On Sept. 22, 2017, a Friday night, Trump invited right-wing grievance to the fight, an intractable adversary that continues to haunt the environment long after his presidency.

When we gather for sports now, some Americans root against the United States in international competition for reasons ranging from too much bravado to too many vocal equality seekers. In 2018, people started burning their Nike attire after the company released a promotion featuring former quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose kneeling protest shook the nation and cost him his career.

Legendary quarterback Aaron Rodgers persists, reputation be damned, with misinformation campaigns. The slogan “Save women’s sports” invigorates an aggressive, nationwide political effort to restrict transgender participation in sports. These grievances are everywhere, spreading insidiously, challenging our core beliefs about social interaction and fair play.

I used to have no doubt about the unifying superpower of sports — how they turn strangers into teammates and teammates into family, how they make community out of motley spectators, how they raise the curtains for societal progress. I used to believe it was an imperishable kind of magic. I don’t anymore. Or rather, I can’t. Division has seized too much control.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneels before a preseason game in September 2016. (Chris Carlson/AP)
By the summer of 2017, Kaepernick’s gesture had inspired activists who both supported and opposed his stance. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

It is the embrace of these divides rather than the newness of them that spoils our ability to unite around anything, even the fun stuff. There is almost nothing fresh about the issues barricading us except for the commitment to be angry and inhuman, vindictive and regressive, insincere and obtuse. To feel threatened and become a threat in response.

The sports world did not create these attitudes. Neither did Trump, for that matter. Yet for as much as we celebrate the positive, transcendent impact of these games, we either chose or allowed the landscape to be flooded with insecurity, resentment and petty behavior. Some relish the grievance. Others chase it for clout. The worst find perverse joy within the conflict.

Before Super Bowl LVIII, the romance between music icon Taylor Swift and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce fueled a wild conspiracy theory: Swift, the Chiefs and the NFL were in cahoots to rig the title game and help President Biden win reelection. The belief was strong enough that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell addressed media questions before the game.

“I’m not that good a scripter,” he joked.

When humor did not suffice, he scoffed, “Just nonsense.”

This is what our sports world has become, so full of lunacy and suspicion, so devoid of galvanizing spirit.

The Von Braun Center in Huntsville, Ala., became the center of the sports world during a political rally Sept. 22, 2017. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

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I came to Huntsville to chase a ghost, returning to the site of the explosion and conjuring those raw feelings once more. It was late February, just after Presidents’ Day, and the Rocket City could not decide whether it wanted to drizzle, gust wind or defer to sunshine. The multiple personalities of an expiring Alabama winter seemed appropriate for the dissonant new sports era.

Samantha Nielsen, the Von Braun Center marketing and public relations director, guided a tour of the city’s downtown centerpiece. With a soft Alabama drawl, she stitched a blissful image of all the fame and fellowship the complex has experienced, all the culture and enrichment it has provided for her hometown.

“This is a melting pot,” Nielsen insisted. “Different people, different cultures, different backgrounds — they come here, they fall in love with it. Because it’s a melting pot.”

Boosters of Huntsville, which celebrates the Taste of Soul Family Festival in March, think of their city as a melting pot. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

That description, melting pot, is a mossy old American concept now. But the innocence in her voice made it sound aspirational again.

Framed photos on the walls memorialize signature events as well as music legends who brought thousands together: Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Lionel Richie, Reba McEntire, Prince, Elton John. There is no recognition of Trump, the iconoclast who made a thunderous noise seven years ago.

Nielsen walked me through the back entrance that Trump took, the lounge where he waited, the hallway that he strode through to take the stage. It opened an eerie emotional portal to the past.

Donald Trump came to Huntsville to support Sen. Luther Strange, who was trying to fend off Roy Moore in a GOP runoff. (Brynn Anderson/AP)
Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Lionel Richie, Reba McEntire, Elton John and Prince have performed at the Von Braun Center. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
The Von Braun Center, which houses Propst Arena, has hosted musical legends and political rallies. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

The roar of the crowd that night prefaced the madness. Trump shook his head and lifted his hands. Chants of “USA! USA! USA!” filled the arena. In blood-red Alabama, the audience received his words like poetry. Trump came to Huntsville to support Sen. Luther Strange, who was trying to fend off Roy Moore in a GOP runoff. Despite the endorsement, Strange would lose a few days later. Still, Trump accomplished something greater — or worse. He recalibrated the power of sports for his own agenda.

He tapped into the central racial grievance that keeps athletics ensnared in American polarization: The resentment that the largest fan faction, most of them White and many of them conservative, holds toward Black athletes who have the nerve to complain about injustice despite all their fame and fortune. Those fans see the athletes as ungrateful, disrespectful, race-baiting contrarians whose mothers must not have raised them right.

When the athletes, many of whom rose from poverty, articulate a heart-wrenching desire to represent marginalized people who look like them and have no voice, those fans scoff at their cries to be seen as full humans, to be accepted as worthy of respect when they’re not entertaining.

Fire them. They make too much damn money anyway.

Trump criticized protesting NFL players during the 2017 Huntsville rally. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

To understand that attitude is to understand how one off-script snippet of a speech can carry such significance. It was the opening through which all kinds of regressive conduct entered what many of us thought was a safe space to model the nation’s potential.

The tension has always been there, but the history of American athlete protest is filled with solitary acts, isolating the recoil. However, we have been on this path since 2012, when Trayvon Martin’s death sparked a movement that stirred Black athletes and led to an era of widespread protest. The controversy peaked when Kaepernick protested the entire 2016 season. The activism persevered even after he was forced off the stage.

For all the public discomfort, there had been no true organized backlash, only scattered displeasure. Then Trump unleashed extreme patriotism on the activists’ cause. It was no longer a fight to make people understand the deadly consequences of racial injustice. It turned into an unambiguous, not to mention misleading, choice: Are you American or un-American?

Republican Sen. Luther Strange lost a 2017 runoff to Roy Moore despite Trump’s backing. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

The man representing the nation’s highest office had declared a sports culture war.

“Sports are a sacred object to many people,” said Barbara A. Perry, the Gerald L. Baliles professor and presidential studies director at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “Patriotism is sacred to others. Putting them both in conflict helped to perpetuate the constant stream of Donald Trump.”

Trump didn’t need to be all that convincing. This fire had been burning. He just added gasoline.

“I hate Nike,” David Wells said in September, with tape covering the company’s logo on his jersey. “They’re woke.” (Wendell Cruz/USA TODAY Sports)

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David Wells, the outspoken and beer-chugging former pitcher, visited Yankee Stadium in September for Old-Timers’ Day. He is 61 now, his head bald, his goatee various shades of gray.

In 1998, after he threw a perfect game, Wells laughed at himself and declared he made history as the only pitcher to do it “half-drunk, with bloodshot eyes, monster breath and a raging, skull-rattling hangover.” He was the colorful everyman who walked the line of appropriate behavior. He usually landed on the endearing side. On this day, he was antagonistic. Before he took the field, he placed tape over the Nike swoosh on his pinstriped jersey.

“I hate Nike,” he announced to reporters. “They’re woke.”

Three factions dominate the current sports landscape: the apolitical, the aggrieved and the activists. The aggrieved try to convince the apolitical that they’re on the same team, that blame for the politicization of sports should be placed entirely on people who care too much about societal change to keep entertainment and escapism as the priorities.

Grievance stands as a dreadful foil for activism. Activism often uses civil disobedience as a plea for equality. Grievance stokes fear and anger to protect inequality. Activism constantly challenges convention. Grievance leans into tradition, weaponizing the way things used to be.

But grievance is not merely protecting normalcy. It aims to reinforce the athletic power structure. It wants to use sports for more inherently political reasons than do the stars who strive to platform human decency. It is now the dominant strain of political sports conversation.

The shift occurred without much acknowledgment. Since the end of 2020, the protests have quieted in sports. We are nearly a half-decade into the backlash era.

“I think 2020 was both the high point and the beginning of the end of the liberal, left-leaning phase,” said Douglas Hartmann, a University of Minnesota professor who researches sports and social movements. “It has given way to a backlash phase, one not only against Black athletes and protest but a fairly aggressive, radical and reactionary right-wing effort to use sport to further their agenda.

“It’s a movement masquerading as an earnest attempt to reclaim sport. I don’t think people see how dominant it is. They still think the sports and politics conversation is all about left-leaning protest. I haven’t seen much of that lately. But the countermovement is far more developed than a lot of folks think, and the great contradiction is that it’s implicitly more political than anything we saw in the 2010s.”

Denver Broncos players kneel Sept. 24, 2017, before a game in Orchard Park, N.Y. (Timothy T. Ludwig/Usa Today Sports)

On the Sunday after Trump provoked the NFL in 2017, every team made a statement in some way. The demonstrations were supposed to be a show of strength, but over time, it became clear the league’s owners participated because they were interested in temporary pacification. For the remainder of the 2017 season, the NFL warred with itself and defended its public image against a propagandized foe. Soon the conflict would spread to other sports.

“That’s where you really started to see that fracture,” said former NFL safety Malcolm Jenkins, who helped form the nonprofit Players Coalition to support social change. “I’ve always tried to stay focused on the main thing, and the main thing is the people.”

Instead, it became an ideological wrestling match about athlete empowerment, a war of celebrity words, often delivered through social media: Trump and his high-profile allies vs. LeBron James, vs. Gregg Popovich, vs. Stephen Curry, vs. Megan Rapinoe, vs. Roger Goodell, vs. Bubba Wallace. You needed a Q rating to fight. The fame brought attention and passion, but there was no penetrating discourse. It was a reality-show scuffle. No one could win, except for rubbernecking gossip fiends. No societal progress could be made, either. Perhaps the stalemate was the point.

“All of these arguments are just distractions,” Jenkins said. “People aren’t listening.”

On the first Sunday of the Trump aftermath, cornerback Josh Norman felt the awkward vibe in the stadium. Cheers were indistinguishable from boos, and the color of the fans’ clothing did not tell the full story of their loyalty. Allegiances had become entangled, discourse drowned out by noise.

“It was,” Norman said, “like something out of a horror film.”

Football players at Bob Jones High in Madison, Ala., pray after morning workouts in March. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

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Grievance helped Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), a former college football coach who led Auburn to a 13-0 season, get into office. In the ad that defined his 2019 campaign, he exhumed dusty criticism of Kaepernick.

“The way I was raised, before a football game, you stood to honor America,” he said. “And after the game, you knelt to honor God. But today, those values are under attack. Socialism. Abortion on demand. Open borders. It’s got to end. So I’m getting off the sidelines and into the fight.”

He trolled his way into power, and five years later he tries to troll his way through serving Alabama. When he feels the need, he will use his experiences coaching predominantly Black players against the Black community, resorting to the worst stereotypes and validating them because he used to coach ’em up.

Many have wondered: How could he? Doesn’t it violate some kind of code? Shouldn’t he hold his former players in the highest regard? The naiveté ignores a most American reality about race: Throughout the nation’s history, White men have profited off Black labor without conscience. All that work and sweat has never guaranteed increased compassion. It is possible to vilify and benefit at once.

Tuberville is doing what he has always done. Many older football coaches have been drawn to Trumpism because of the perception of masculinity and a desperate need to remain in control. The 87-year-old Lou Holtz, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Trump in 2020, took to social media this year to declare, “We need to coach America back to greatness!”

President Donald Trump congratulates retired football coach Lou Holtz after awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The desire to corral the progressive forces of America, to restore some order, is a significant motivation of grievance. Athletes, particularly minorities and women, are often the target.

No one is safe. For the nearly 10 months Brittney Griner spent as a political prisoner in Russia, the effort to free her was a polarizing topic back home. It was as predictable as it was sad. It did not matter that the State Department considered Griner “wrongfully detained.” This was an opportunity to put a prominent athlete in her place, even if it meant siding with Russia.

The right-wing media labeled her an America hater because she once protested and a drug addict because she received a preposterous nine-year sentence for getting caught with small amounts of cannabis oil in vape cartridges. It was somehow her fault for going to Russia to earn more money than she can make in the United States.

The agony over another of our own being in a foreign jail competed with the troubling disdain for a gay Black woman who stands 6-foot-9. It seemed Vladimir Putin knew America better than it knew itself. When a prisoner swap brought Griner home in December 2022, hostility lingered amid the joy and relief.

“The conversation around her is very reflective of what a lot of Black women experience in the world and especially in our country,” said WNBA all-star Nneka Ogwumike, the president of the league’s players association. “So that was something that we live with every day, not just because of BG but because a lot of us live with those realities every day. I really hope that conversation doesn’t die because she’s come back.”

LeBron James has sparred with political critics during his years as one of the NBA’s leading figures. (Robert Deutsch/USA Today Sports)

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The way Victoria Jackson sees it, sports cannot be separated from politics because of how the games are structured. “Modern sport is a political project,” said Jackson, a former NCAA champion distance runner who is now an Arizona State sports historian and clinical assistant professor. “It is a project, a global project, of exclusion.”

Protest and backlash, it turns out, are much older rivals than we realize.

“The first part of the project centered on exclusivity: who gets to play and who gets to lead,” Jackson said. “In America, so many of the origins go back to White males controlling the access. The second part, and it’s still going, is inclusivity — people of color and women gaining access on the field and behind the scenes.

“That’s how sport reflects society, and the way it handles its own issues of exclusion and inclusion has a great influence.”

The conversation with Jackson persuaded me to think deeper and abandon my ahistorical perspective. For more than a century, American sports have manipulated politics for their benefit.

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We don’t see the politics of the privileged. We only see the politics of those challenging privileged authority.

Victoria Jackson, sports historian and clinical associate professor of history at Arizona State University

The most prominent leagues didn’t become lucrative entertainment giants because they kept the nation’s problems and politics from eating away at them. They succeeded precisely because they swallowed politics whole, turning the public craving for diversion into negotiating tactics to receive government subsidies and influence lawmakers to champion their most ambitious profit-boosting ideas, all under the guise of bringing people together.

When pressured to change, the gatekeepers return to where they have always gone in times of need, expecting the politicians and traditionalists to help them maintain their systems — while claiming to be apolitical. One group gets mocked and ordered to stick to sports. The other attempts, without apology, to stick it to sports.

“We don’t see the politics of the privileged,” Jackson said. “We only see the politics of those challenging privileged authority.”

“Let nothing get in the way of our unity,” said Kelvis White, coach of the Bob Jones High football team in Madison, Ala. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

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At Bob Jones High in Madison, Ala., a few minutes from Huntsville, Coach Kelvis White walks through the weight room and heads toward the football field. The final bell rang about an hour earlier, and a diverse population of students spilled into the parking lot, looking for their cars and school buses, retreating to their extracurricular activities, laughing and dancing and teasing. Their spirit is why White loves his job.

Coaching is the family business. His father, Louis, made the state Hall of Fame after leading Courtland High to four state football titles and five track crowns. His older brother, Laron, recently retired after winning two state football championships in a 20-year career. The brothers played for their dad and earned college scholarships at Alabama. “I was carrying coolers and painting fields since I was young,” White said.

He is not lost in time, however. His father had a stern coaching style, but he was also a father figure in the community. Kelvis has taskmaster traits, but he does not try to copy his dad. Coaches must connect differently with this generation. Some coaches ignore this call. White would rather meet the moment.

“I’m not a know-it-all coach,” he said. “You’ve got to give them a voice, listen to their thoughts and how they feel about things.”

Kelvis White became the coach at Bob Jones High in 2020, a challenging year. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

He left Mae Jemison High and took the job at Bob Jones in February 2020, just before the pandemic forced the world into isolation. He began building his new program during a dire time. After George Floyd’s murder that May, White had to guide his players through a national tragedy that reshaped sentiments about athletes protesting lethal police force.

Patriotism could not obstruct the cause anymore. This was no time to antagonize. Trump’s voice on the issue weakened. Later, he lost the 2020 election — with athletes using their influence to convince people to vote.

But America didn’t vote out grievance. The bitterness has lingered, tempering the progressive spirit of a sports world built around striving to improve. It’s one more place to confront divisiveness.

“We’re in a moment where education has been politicized, where we’re not all receiving the same sort of news, where movies and theme parks aren’t happy, simple entertainment,” said Jackson, the Arizona State professor. “Sport becomes a potent, dangerous place for these battles to play. Sport makes them explicit. You can’t turn a blind eye in sporting spaces. The ideas held through society always play out most explicitly through the bodies of athletes.”

Colt Dixon and Kaleb Christopher listen to their coaches at Bob Jones High. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Kaleb Christopher relaxes with father Adrian and mother Adrain. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Colt Dixon readies for prom with his mother, Stevi. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

White has tried to build the most responsible space for his team. Without him imposing his political beliefs on the students, they have bonded while talking about life’s challenges. His message always comes back to a theme: Stay together. When the players discussed whether to protest, he demanded only that they make a group decision and stick with it. They decided against a pregame demonstration.

Their nickname is the Patriots, and they lived up to it — not because they obeyed anyone’s rules of behavior but because they supported each other.

“It’s a lot of good in this world — and a lot of evil, too, you know?” White said. “But we’ve just got to love each other, man. Sometimes we’re out here in 90-degree heat, drenched with sweat, just being brothers. No matter what you see on television, don’t judge a person. Let nothing get in the way of our unity.”

In a suburb of Huntsville, 11 miles from where the unity fractured, a coach holds on to a relic of a decayed dream. He would be wise to stash it somewhere safe.

When the Patriots discussed whether to protest, their coach demanded only that they make a group decision and stick with it. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
About this series

Columns by Jerry Brewer.

Photography by Jahi Chikwendiu. Photo editing and research by Toni L. Sandys. Video editing by Joshua Carroll. Video graphics by Sarah Hashemi. Illustrations by Victoria Cassinova. Design and development by Brianna Schroer. Audio production by Bishop Sand.

Editing by Dan Steinberg and Akilah Johnson. Copy editing by Brad Windsor. Additional editing by Brandon Carter, Nicki DeMarco, Courtney Kan, Jason Murray, Matthew Rennie and Virginia Singarayar.

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