Remember when sports were political? It wasn’t very long ago. In 2020, the explosion of protests and outrage in the wake of George Floyd’s murder shook up most corners of society. That summer, WNBA and NBA players led protests in the streets, and in their COVID bubbles, multiple teams refused to play after Jacob Blake was shot in Kenosha, Wisconsin (including the Milwaukee Bucks, which started it off by skipping a playoff game). NFL commissioner Roger Goodell actually said the words “Black lives matter” even though it looked like as if he were being held hostage while doing so. The letters BLM were painted on a Major League Baseball pitching mound in Missouri! And athlete activism seemed to make a difference: The NBA’s and WNBA’s push to turn their arenas into voting precincts was credited, fairly or unfairly, with increasing voter turnout. It seemed we were entering a new age of sports activism. I even wrote about it for this publication, with former NBA star Chris Webber, an eloquent and powerful voice in the world of social justice, telling me, “These kids are making such a difference. And it’s just normal to them now. And it is certainly not going to stop.”
Webber was surely right. But I think it’s fair to say the activism surge has at least slowed a little bit. Just look at the sports world’s reaction to the leak that the Supreme Court is likely to overturn Roe v. Wade.
It has been a week since Politico’s scoop, and while conversation about the ruling has been a constant in my world and probably yours, there has been barely a whisper about it in the sports universe. The WNBA, the league at the forefront of most social-justice initiatives and one you’d certainly think would be out front on this one, tweeted a statement in support of “women’s rights” and “civic engagement” but didn’t mention Roe v. Wade specifically. And even that anodyne statement can’t currently be found on wnba.com. The National Women’s Soccer League’s response was milder still. And there’s been even less from men, perhaps not surprisingly. USA Today, as it does, compiled a listicle of male athletes reacting to the Supreme Court leak. It included a link to an Instagram Story from British F1 racer Lewis Hamilton, who said “everyone should have the right to choose what they do with theirs bodies,” and … a Twitter thread from former NFL journeyman quarterback Sage Rosenfels, who threw a total of 30 touchdowns over an 11-year career that ended a decade ago. No offense to Rosenfels, whom you can book for 75 bucks on Cameo right now, but his thread was unlikely to move the needle much.
And there doesn’t appear to be much movement coming. Maybe when the actual decision arrives, likely at the end of the Supreme Court term in June, we’ll see more leagues and athletes speaking out. But I doubt it. Why? I think there are six reasons, and none of them is particularly encouraging.
They’re all corporations.
It was reported last week that public-relations giant Zeno, which represents companies such as Coca-Cola, Netflix, and Starbucks, has advised its corporate clients to stay as far away from the Roe v. Wade “debate” as they can, describing the situation as “no win.” The 19th could barely get a Fortune 500 company to give them even a comment. Sports leagues are massive corporate entities with billions of dollars at stake and public reputations they are constantly fretting about. Taking a stand on Roe v. Wade is something they didn’t do for years, and they’re unlikely to start now.
Getting involved has generally not been rewarded.
Only 13 months ago, Major League Baseball pulled its All-Star Game out of Georgia because of that state’s voter-suppression bill (which is now law). Yet it’s difficult to imagine that decision, which was much more about business interests than political ones, being made today. For its trouble, MLB got Ted Cruz trying to take away its antitrust exception and a place on right-wing lists like “Worst of the Woke” corporations. The All-Star Game move did little to stop the bill, and when the Atlanta Braves made the World Series, Donald Trump, who had called for a baseball boycott, showed up to see them win. The whole thing ended up not making much of a difference at all (and Georgia is widely expected to get another All-Star Game sometime in the next decade anyway). Leagues are like any other corporation: They will support a cause if they think it will benefit them, and they won’t if they think it won’t. MLB was, in this sense, a cautionary tale.
They’re run, and played, mostly by men.
Let’s not overcomplicate this. George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protests rocked the NBA, a league that is 74 percent Black (compared with the NFL at 58 percent and MLB at 7.7 percent). These leagues are all exactly 0 percent female. While abortion rights are not solely a women’s-rights issue — as Rebecca Traister wrote, this new post-Roe world would affect everyone — getting men to understand that isn’t likely to be easy. While one can be a little surprised that the WNBA didn’t make more noise about Roe v. Wade its opening weekend, that league at least said something. These other leagues, almost all run by men, have said zilch.
They’re waiting for someone else to take the lead.
On my podcast The Long Game With LZ & Leitch last week, LZ Granderson and I spoke with St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty, one of the more socially conscious athletes in sports and an active member of More Than a Vote. He acknowledged that sports had taken a step back from politics in the past year but believed a movement could get going again if someone else took the first step. His suggestion was the WNBA:
But not only does this put the onus of activism on the WNBA (and women) again, it also gives leagues and athletes every excuse to stay quiet if someone else doesn’t start making a ton of noise first. Plus Flaherty plays baseball with a whole bunch of Christian white men from the South: There are costs for him to speak up as well. Which brings us to:
Professional athletes are probably more supportive of overturning Roe than the general population is.
A recent poll showed that two-thirds of Americans disagree with overturning Roe v. Wade. While there aren’t exactly polls of athletes’ political views — though I encourage our nation’s beat reporters to try to get them — it’s a pretty fair bet that the percentage of athletes, owners, and executives who feel the same is far lower than that. It’s no secret that many baseball players, as just one example, at the very least lean conservative. And it’s fair to say the unity, such as it was, that we saw in sports after the murder of Floyd will be difficult to replicate when it comes to abortion.
People are exhausted.
All over sports, there is an undeniable sense of gratitude that the pandemic is over (at least in the eyes of the people who run and play sports) and that “normal” seasons are back. Increasingly, 2020 is seen as an anomaly in all senses. For all the activism of that year, decades of powerful inertia is still pushing sports to focus solely on the games themselves. Also: How much does it feel as though the 2020 sports protests changed things? Yes, Trump is no longer president, and that’s a relief. But do things feel overwhelmingly improved? Athletes and leagues went out of their comfort zones to try to make change in 2020. Two years later, well, the world’s still on fire. It might be a shame — for all of us — that they’re returning to those comfort zones. But it’s not difficult to understand why.