Lessons from the Sports World’s Politically Charged Weekend

The president's remarks stirred up debate around players in two sports leagues—leading teams, executives, and players' associations to respond in a variety of ways. Here are some notable takeaways.

President Donald Trump’s statements over the weekend regarding the NFL and NBA had a big impact on the sports world.

First, Trump suggested that NFL players who don’t stand for the national anthem should be fired by their respective teams, then he rescinded an invitation for the Golden State Warriors to visit the White House amid rumors that the team’s biggest star, Steph Curry, didn’t want to go.

This put a large amount of pressure on sports teams and players across the country, and the situation has some lessons in terms of communication strategy and leadership. Read on for some insights.

Speak up For Your Members

Players’ associations for the NFL and NBA provided pointed voices of defense to the conflict, providing shelter of sorts during a politically fraught time.

NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, in a statement, shared this:

No man or woman should ever have to choose a job that forces them to surrender their rights. No worker nor any athlete, professional or not, should be forced to become less than human when it comes to protecting their basic health and safety. We understand that our job as a Union is not to win a popularity contest and it comes with a duty to protect the rights of our members. For that we make no apologies and never will.

Meanwhile, the National Basketball Players Association added in a tweeted statement that “the celebration of free expression—not condemnation—is what truly makes America great.”

Show a Unified Front

While the Pittsburgh Steelers showed up to play Sunday, the team collectively sat out the national anthem in the locker room, a decision made by the entire team. In comments to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, coach Mike Tomlin emphasized that the move was intended to create a situation that every Steelers player could agree with.

“They were not going to be disrespectful of the anthem, so they chose not to participate. But at the same time many of them were not going to accept the words of the president,” Tomlin told the newspaper. “We decided to sit it out, to not take the field, to remove ourselves from it, to focus on playing football. Those were our intentions.”

(In the end, just one Steelers player, offensive tackle and former U.S. Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva, walked out, standing directly outside the tunnel. He later said that his move was completely unintentional and that he had been caught on the field when the anthem had started.)

NASCAR had another take on the issue. It largely stood in support of the anthem—reflecting the stance of notable team owners like Richard Petty while also making room for peaceful protests, a point star Dale Earnhardt Jr. emphasized in a tweet this morning.

“Sports are a unifying influence in our society, bringing people of differing backgrounds and beliefs together,” the auto-racing organization stated. “Our respect for the national anthem has always been a hallmark of our pre-race events. Thanks to the sacrifices of many, we live in a country of unparalleled freedoms and countless liberties, including the right to peacefully express one’s opinion.”

Ultimately, wherever a group or organization lands on an issue, it should be a decision that reflects a unified stance.

Try Counterprogramming

When the Golden State Warriors do visit Washington, DC, to play the Wizards in February, the city will be ready for them—whether the White House is or not.

Warriors General Manager Bob Myers told the San Jose Mercury News that the team is focusing on doing good with its time in the District.

“We recognized, as our players do, we can be a positive change,” Myers said. “So we’ll put some good thought into that. I challenged the players, ‘Let that be your decision. Let that be your day because it should be.'”

Whatever the case may be, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser welcomed the team—even if she did get a minor dig in for the hometown team.

“Whether you’re here to work, play, practice your First Amendment rights, or lose to our Wizards, we welcome all to visit our museums, our monuments, our restaurants, and our thriving neighborhoods if they do so peacefully and respectfully,” Bowser said in a tweeted statement.

From left: Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry. (Brook Ward/Flickr; Keith Allison/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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