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If you thought sports were ever separate from politics, think again

Sports are, at a baseline, the ultimate meritocracy. There’s a winner and a loser, and the outcome is seldom in question — a rarity in a world that’s mostly gray. And yet, sports have never been wholly separated from politics, from race, from gender, from business, from society. Sports are, and always have been, a microcosm of where we find ourselves as a country — perhaps as a world.

As with any other form of entertainment, the ability to think of sports outside of our society has been a privilege of those who, until now, haven’t been affected by their consequences.

Tell Jesse Owens he should’ve “stuck to sports” when his four gold medals and record-setting performance in the 1936 Berlin Olympics directly flew in the face of Adolf Hilter’s plan to use the Games as a showcase for supposed Aryan superiority.

Tell it to Babe Didrikson Zaharias, a multi-sport Olympian who, in 1938, became the first woman to play in a men’s PGA tournament and often dealt with misogynistic criticism of femininity versus her athleticism. So much so that, when she took up golf, the then-Olympic gold medalist changed her wardrobe and wore lipstick to fit the expectation of how a woman should look. “I know I’m not pretty, but I try to be graceful,” she said at the time.

Tell that to Jackie Robinson or Muhammad Ali or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; or to Billie Jean King or Venus Williams, who, in different eras, fought for the same level of pay equality for men and women.

Tell that to black players, Irish players, Italian players, female players, all of whom have fought over decades and centuries for the right to merely exist as athletes, to contribute highly sought-after skills that have long transcended artificial barriers. Irish athletes made it on the baseball field and in the boxing ring in the 19th century, when stores hung “no Irish need apply” signs and newspapers portrayed Irish immigrants as terrorists. Female students parlayed Title IX, the 1972 law prohibiting discrimination at educational institutions, into a silver medal in women’s basketball at the 1976 Olympics. Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state and a black woman, was barred from membership at Augusta National Golf Club because of her gender until four-and-a-half years ago. She joined in 2012 when the club began admitting women.

The historical assimilation of immigrants, the “mainstreaming” of black talent, the elevation of women outside of “female” roles, the value of unions, the questioning of government subsidies for corporations in the form of bond abatements for stadiums or league-wide tax breaks — these are all ways sports have never just been about sports, ways in which some of us haven’t been able to just “stick to sports.” These are all ways sports, and sports coverage, can help us understand our world just a little bit better, as long as we continue to elevate those voices that aren’t always heard.

When you really think about it, the division between sports and politics has long been eroded. The separation is what takes effort to uphold — and it’s mostly done by people whose right to exist in this space isn’t questioned.

Some of us have been outsiders for a while, constantly proving that we belong in the sports world. “How did you get to be a sports fan?” is a question I’m asked more often than not. My answer is usually very simple: “I was a New Yorker growing up two subway stops away from Yankee Stadium in the ’90s. How could I not be a sports fan?” Many of us have loved sports even when the feeling wasn’t mutual. Even when the communities surrounding these beautiful games were decidedly exclusionary, even when they told us we didn’t belong.

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