I’ve seen a lot of posts about the return of professional sports this past week.
Major League Baseball finally got their COVID-shortened campaign underway and the NBA and NHL is scheduled to get cranked up this week as well.
Right now, the NFL is planning on a full season — albeit with no preseason contests.
It’s strange to see boxers fight in a quiet studio setting with no fan reaction when a solid blow is landed. Nevertheless, we have boxing.
Many of us are thrilled. I count myself in this group.
I’ve been a sports fan since I was big enough to sit with my father and watch our beloved Cincinnati Reds. He brought me into the sports loop.
We watched baseball and I was immediately drawn to a catcher named Johnny Bench. We made the trip to Cincinnati regularly during the summers and I was fortunate enough to watch the Big Red Machine up close and personal. Bench, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Ken Griffey, Sr., George Foster, Cesar Geronimo and Davey Concepcion. The Great Eight.
We watched the old NFL, with Lombardi prowling the sidelines and a bloodied, muddied Dick Butkus plowing through blockers to dismember ballcarriers. And one day when dad turned the TV to NBC after a Browns game, I watched the AFL for the first time and became a Jets fan. Yeah, that’s been a tough road.
We watched the NBA. Although Cincinnati had the Royals, I was always a Lakers fan. Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Happy Hairston, Gail Goodrich — those were my guys. To this day, you might see me sporting purple and gold Lakers attire.
We watched hockey. Dayton had an International Hockey League team called the Gems and the pilgrimage to Hara Arena was a regular one in the winters. They were a minor league affiliate of the Boston Bruins, so I latched on to that team. Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Johnny Bucyk and Gerry Cheevers. And, yes, I’m still a Bruins fan.
We watched boxing. I was enthralled with Muhammad Ali. My father didn’t like his politics and swore up and down that Jack Dempsey would’ve kicked his ass. (Sorry dad, I’m not still not seeing it.) Dad didn’t like Ali — but he watched his fights. He watched because he appreciated greatness in the ring — even though he didn’t admit that until years later.
The love of sports is ingrained in me. It’s woven into my fiber. And it’s no surprise that when I chose a career path, I wanted to be a sports journalist. I got to live that dream for over 15 years right here in this community — and the Briar Jumpers, Maroons and Warriors became as much a part of me as the Reds were when I was 6 or 7.
In recent years, sports has once again become a lightning rod over political statements, player commentary on current events and the nation’s racial divide.
I say once again because this is not something that is new or revolutionary. In the 60s, a group of star Black athletes were leaders of the Civil Rights movement. Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar come to mind.
In the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter event. At the podium, they raised a black-gloved fist in a nod to the Black Power Movement. In stark contrast, the very next day, heavyweight boxer George Foreman won the gold medal and paraded around the ring waving two American flags.
We’ve heard from outspoken athletes ranging from Drew Brees to LeBron James to Colin Kaepernick.
Some of these guys are conservatives. Some are liberal.
Some kneel to protest violence against Black Americans by police. Others choose not to kneel because they feel it widens the divide.
I respect them all. But I care about their political views about as much as they care about mine — and that’s not at all.
Some of the posts I’ve seen by friends on social media indicate they’re going to stop watching sports because of athletes displaying their politics for all to see.
If these people are truly fans, I feel very sorry for them. Why let politics interfere with your enjoyment of something that’s been a part of your entire life?
American sports may not be exactly like they were back in the day when my father taught me how to throw a baseball. The salaries are bigger (and so are the egos), the stadiums are palaces (you’ll never seen mud on a uniform again, and that hurts me to my core) and, yes, maybe these guys are more outspoken. Then again, maybe they’re simply answering questions that are asked of them.
Whatever the case, when you wade though all the political hub bub, the games, stripped down to their essence, are still pretty much the same.
When the great Willie Mays was asked to describe baseball, his response was perfectly simplistic: “They throw it and I hit it. They hit it and I catch it.”
And when the anthem is done playing and the players take the field, that’s pretty much what you see.
What happens between the lines, in the ring, on the court and on the gridiron is something that has been a part of me all my life.
I’ll be damned if politics is going to change that.
JEFF NEAL is the Editor of the Commonwealth Journal. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jnealCJ.