Professional sports have been tardy and tepid in their embrace of the First Amendment.
Used to be that athletes could snort up lines of coke the width of the goal line, or have offspring in every city of the NBA Eastern Conference and still be welcomed, but watch for them on the waiver wire if they got political or involved in the issues of the society that surrounded them.
That’s changing as athletes become more vocal every day. Maybe they’re simply more aware and engaged, but I think they’ve just found easier ways to express themselves.
Twitter, websites and self-publication opportunities allow them to build their brand, shape their image, and increasingly to push their social agenda or, with more recent visibility, their political stances.
Your athletes are now fully dimensional with opinions they’re free to share, but it’s not for the thin-skinned or faint of heart, as the internet is a savage arena.
After hearing of Tom Brady’s widely reported support of Donald Trump during the election run-up, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson this week streamed comments critical of Trump’s presidency.
“… It’s already too much, it’s already crazy … it’s already affecting people’s hearts and souls and lives in such a negative way,” Wilson said.
He’s absolutely entitled to exploit the platform he has built for himself as a vehicle for his opinions.
There may be costs to Wilson and other pro athletes speaking out on matters more relevant than the wisdom of running draw plays on third downs. Those include the inevitable criticism, as well as the possibility that some corporate endorsers start getting touchy about alienating a segment of potential customers.
But even with that in mind, it is long past the time to recognize athletes as purveyors of cogent thought and valid opinions.
The beauty of the connection now is that it’s instant and global. And the danger also is that it is instant and global.
No team celebrates the freedom of expression as openly as the Seahawks. But I’m sure at times this season they had looked back longingly at the times when Marshawn Lynch would sullenly mutter, “I’m only here so I don’t get fined.” It simplified matters.
For instance, we have so often covered Michael Bennett’s messages promoting racial equality, literacy, healthy eating, and responsible parenting. He and receiver Doug Baldwin have become strong voices for social change.
The other edge of this is felt when the world hears about Bennett’s bullying of a TV reporter for the sin of asking reasonable questions after a game.
The episode proved that Bennett, an intelligent, articulate and erudite man, is human and has moments of bad judgment and loss of control. What Bennett and everybody else learned is that these moments no longer go unrecorded.
Players have reason for concern over the misinterpretation of their message as it ripples away from the epicenter.
When a Richard Sherman press conference this fall ended with an off-to-the-side exchange with a radio commentator that got personal, it wasn’t Sherman’s best moment. He was out of line. And it was tweeted by some media that witnessed it.
Those tweets were then amplified by the next level of re-tweeters, and within minutes, some national NFL reporters were tweeting of Sherman’s involvement in an “altercation.”
As it went viral, the virus had mutated into something that sounded far more sinister.
These things can start innocuously.
After last summer’s shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando that resulted in 50 deaths, Seahawks punter Jon Ryan posted an Instagram photo of a rainbow, sending his wishes of support.
Hard to find fault with that, right? But it quickly became a nasty exchange with a zealot, and Ryan soon deleted his accounts.
He explained to the Seattle Times afterward that he felt it was totally appropriate for athletes to make their voices heard. But the anger that resulted caused him to decide he “didn’t want to be a part of it anymore.”
Ryan hadn’t meant his comment to be political or controversial.
“I’m just trying to voice my opinion as a human being,” Ryan said.
It’s timely and fair that athletes do exactly that.
But not everybody is going to like what they say.