A few weeks ago, Brewers starting pitcher Matt Garza made headlines with a tweet. In a response to actress Jessica Chastain lamenting the fact that birth control was no longer covered by health insurance, Garza both advocated abstinence and criticized an entire generation.
— Matt garza (@Gdeuceswild) January 13, 2017
Predictably, there were some loud responses: Some people agreed with Garza, and others disagreed. But there was also a third category of responses, which was to ask why we should care. The theory here is presumably that Garza is one of many citizens of this country and is entitled both to his own beliefs and the right to share them. And while this is true, I believe it misses the point, because sports and politics are linked.
As a major league baseball player, Matt Garza has a platform. He does not have that platform because his opinions have been deemed particularly noteworthy, but he has a platform nonetheless and so what he says matters. Professional athletes’ opinions do not exist in a bubble; fans of the team and the sport see these quotes, and articles are written in response to these statements.
Sports and politics are not separate. We cannot just pretend that sports exist on their own. We may prefer that they did, as having sports as a true escape would be nice, but the reality is that the two are inextricably linked. The NFL taking money from the Department of Defense is the most recognizable example of this, but it is present everywhere. The NBA moved their All Star Game from Charlotte in response to North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” European soccer leagues have been trying to address racism for decades, and MLB and the MLBPA just agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement that will functionally serve to shift money out of the Dominican Republic.
There is also an obvious point that I have not addressed yet, which is that the United States of America just elected a celebrity as president. One of the reasons that Donald Trump was able to get his campaign off the ground is that he had a built-in audience of people who already knew who he was. His platform mattered. I am not going to pretend that Matt Garza has the same influence as President Trump did even before he began his campaign, but the overall point stands: platforms matter.
And because Garza has a platform, his words matter. We cannot pretend that Garza’s opinions have no impact, and so people can and should speak out in response. His statements were not uttered in a vacuum. His tweet came directly in response to a change in America’s health care policy, and that change will impact the lives of many millions of people. Some of those people—women who cannot afford birth control without insurance—have had their lives irreparably changed, and recognizing those consequences are important. When Matt Garza belittles that by simply advocating abstinence, it is good and necessary to comment on it.
Sports and politics are linked. We cannot pretend that the political events occurring in America will not affect sports. The recent immigration executive order has cast doubt on Los Angeles’s ability to host the 2024 Olympics. The NBA has reached out to the State Department for guidance on whether its two Sudanese basketball players would be able to come back into the country after playing the Toronto Raptors. In what is hardly a far-fetched scenario, the Bucks could make the playoffs, finish seventh in the Eastern Conference, and be slated to play second-seeded Toronto in the first round. Will Thon Maker be able to return to the U.S. after the first two games of the series?
As Daniel Brim wrote at Dodgers Digest, baseball is an international sport. The World Baseball Classic was proposed by MLB in an attempt to grow the game around the world and expand it to as many countries as possible. MLB teams have players from 18 different countries, and immigrants remain a part of the fabric of this sport and this country. Changed immigration laws will impact that; today, the named countries do not happen to be ones that produce professional baseball players, but that does not have to be the case going forward. Two of Latin America’s biggest sources of baseball players—Cuba and Venezuela—do not have the strongest relationship with the United States. I don’t anticipate these immigration restrictions expanding that far, but who can know?
All of this is to say that sports do not exist in their own world, and so we must care about what our athletes say. They are public figures who can influence opinion, and their voices are heard in ways that others’ voices are not. Sports fans who do not otherwise engage in politics can see Tom Brady say that he “[hasn’t] paid much attention to what’s going on [with the world],” and they may get the sense that the Trump administration’s ban on immigration from seven primarily Muslim countries is not that significant. On the other hand, they can see Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich, and Stan Van Gundy speak out forcefully against the ban while standing up for what they believe in, and those same fans would have an entirely different understanding of the consequences.
Not everyone’s voice carries the same weight. It is a fundamental truth of today’s culture, but it is not unique to modernity. Throughout human history, some people have always been more influential than others. And in 2017, that issue is at the forefront of politics.
People of color are tremendously underrepresented in American politics, as Congress itself is 81 percent white despite the American population being just 62 percent white. Sports, though, provide some of those people with enough influence to make their voices heard, such as when LeBron James endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in October. Someone being good at sports means that people will listen when they otherwise may not have, and it means that athletes have a lot of power.
Kerr, Popovich, and Van Gundy used their platform to advocate for the rights of those less privileged. It should not be too much to ask that others do the same. Athletes have platforms. It is important that they recognize this privilege, and it is important that we hold them accountable for what they say. Today’s political issues are not a joke.