Jimmy Failla: Sports Illustrated wants fans to salute woke athletes -- will sports as escapism ever return?

It’s commendable that athletes want to effect positive change, but in reality, it’s killing ratings

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Sports Illustrated named “The Activist Athlete” as its Sportsperson of the Year this week. With all due respect to the outstanding men and women on the list, asking fans to salute woke athletes is the worst business proposition I’ve ever heard in sports, and I say that as someone who was once offered season tickets to the New York Knicks. 

In other times the “Sportsperson of the Year” is a lot like “the McRib” in that it gets a ton of hype when it first comes out and everyone forgets about it a few days later, perhaps for their own good in the case of the McRib.

What sets this year’s award apart is that S.I. is celebrating athletes for what they did off the field instead of what they did on it, ushering in a new era in which batting stances take a back seat to political ones. 

In theory, it’s commendable that athletes want to effect positive change, but in reality, it’s killing ratings and the badly needed escapism that sports used to provide fans with. 

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Viewership for this year’s NBA Finals were down 51% from 2019. And while the nose-dive isn’t solely attributable to the league’s social justice crusade, the fact remains the vast majority of fans don’t put on a game to solve societal problems, they put it on to get away from them.

Unfortunately, those days are long gone because every major professional sports league has gone full activist and if that weren’t divisive enough, they’ve made it abundantly clear there’s only one political ideology allowed.

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Four of the athletes on this year’s list, NBA great Lebron James, WNBA star Breanna Stewart, NFL All-World QB Patrick Maholmes, and Tennis Phenom Naomi Osaka were highlighted for their efforts to support Black Lives Matter. It’s a slogan we all agree with but it comes from an organization that was calling for the abolishment of police on the masthead of its website as recently as this summer. 

Yes, these players have the right to use their massive platforms however they want, but it’s worth pointing out that they only have those platforms because millions of fans are willing to tune in, a decision that’s becoming increasingly harder for half the population. 

Think about it this way. If activism were a football play, the league is allowing the Left to have all 11 players on the field while the right is stuck on the sideline. 

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There was a time when sports represented a form of common culture in this country, a place where people could put their political differences aside for a few hours to take in a game and have a beer. They might even gamble, either with a bookie or by eating the stadium nachos.

Those days are long gone and I take no joy in saying it because this country would greatly benefit from the awesome superpower that pro-sports have to unite us in the face of adversity. 

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Nobody cared about politics when Whitney Houston was singing the greatest National Anthem in history prior to the start of Super Bowl XXV, which took place against the backdrop of Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. Nor did anyone get political when President George W. Bush was throwing out the greatest first pitch in history prior to game 3 of the 2001 World Series at Yankees Stadium, just weeks after the September 11th attacks.

That’s because players in that era recognized that while not perfect, America is the greatest source of good the world has ever known and for that alone we should be able to unify for three hours a night to watch them earn their millions while we blow our hundreds on food and drinks. 

Does anybody on the Sportsperson of the Year list honestly believe the country is more unified as a result of their activism? If so, you should check them into the concussion protocol program right away.

And again, I’m not telling athletes to quit the fight, I’m telling them to move the battlefield. Yes, they should pour money into failing city school systems and yes, they should invest in causes that promote social equality. 

But they should also recognize the most iconic moments in sports history have two things in common:

One, is they all have nicknames like “The Catch” and “The Shot Heart Round The World” and “The Miracle On Ice.” 

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The other is that none of them are political statements. 

Sports Illustrated will undoubtedly score points with the Social Justice crowd for their salute to activism, but if leagues keep running this play it may ultimately lead to another historic sports moment called “The Chapter 11.” 

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