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Cari Champion on the Close Relationship Between Sports and Politics

It’s never really been possible to simply “stick to sports”

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration
Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

Few current sportswriters can claim to have gone their entire career without being hit by a "stick to sports" comment. But it’s increasingly difficult for anyone to do so, because as ESPN reporter Cari Champion explained on the latest episode of Black on the Air, sports and politics are closely connected.

Champion expounded on that view in her conversation with Larry Wilmore, and she began by dismissing the myth that ESPN is too political.

"[ESPN] doesn’t want us to talk politics, and I don’t think that we do," she began. "But I think that when you have central figures in sports talking politics, then we have to talk politics. I feel like politics and sports go hand-in-hand. And I don’t understand why people don’t see that. … We sing the national anthem before the game, we used to have the flyovers — sometimes we [still] do; there’s so many patriotic symbols. … We have so many of those symbols within our everyday sports. There’s so many small symbols, if not large symbols, of a political influence in everyday sports. And we have this group of people who say ‘stick to sports’ — it’s not realistic. They go hand-in-hand."

This isn’t a new phenomenon, Champion said. She drew a thread back to Paul Robeson, the third African American to ever enroll at Rutgers, who fought to make the football team in the late 1910s and later became a civil rights activist. He was an All-American and valedictorian at Rutgers, but it was Robeson’s activism later in life that made an impact on Champion.

"I took a class on [Robeson] at UCLA, and that man was just a true renaissance man. [My] professor talked about this man like he was walking on water. I fell in love with that person. He was all those things that an athlete should be. And then we had Muhammad Ali. They hated Muhammad Ali. But he was so vocal and proud and honest about who he was and what wasn’t right. I’m here for that. That was politics in sports. Then you have Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Brown — the list goes on and on."

And of course, politics is very much intertwined with sports today. Just look at Colin Kaepernick.

"[Kaepernick] didn’t volunteer. He didn’t say, ‘Hey guys, guess what? I’m kneeling because.’ [The media] asked him, then we made it a story."

She continued:

"When he got benched and he was the backup for the 49ers, there was a transformation taking place that none of us paid attention to because he wasn’t the starting quarterback, and the 49ers were bad. And if you followed his Instagram posts, you just noticed all of a sudden, it went from pictures of him being a model to pictures of him with black fists, and a message, etc. And I remember saying this to one of my friends: ‘He’s mighty militant these days — what’s going on?’ Six months later and the story broke, and I’m like, ‘No, he’s been on this for some time.’ … And then we made it a story and he’s now being punished because of a story we made."

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.