Some sports journalists are wary of dipping their toes into the political pool. Bruce Arthur, the Toronto Star’s sports columnist, is standing on the diving board ready to leap in, cannonball-style.
Arthur has never shied away from contentious issues. His columns are often acerbic, ever-detailed, and increasingly essential in an era of rising political implications in sport, a realm many think should be isolated from national politics.
When former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the American national anthem to protest police brutality and systematic mistreatment of Black people in the United States, Arthur was quick to discuss the protest and its impending backlash.
“Colin Kaepernick can’t run the way he used to be able to run,” Arthur wrote in September 2016. “But this time he decided not to run, and that said as much about him as anything else.”
Over a year later, hundreds of professional athletes echo Kaepernick with their own political statements, drawing the ire of President Donald Trump. On Sept. 23, at a rally in Alabama, Trump called players who kneeled “sons of bitches” who should be fired.
The next day, Arthur snapped back. “The argle-bargle-belching president of the United States decided to play to his canker-sore ego and his racism-fuelled base by attacking the athletes of the (NFL) and (NBA), which by sheer utter coincidence are the two pro sports leagues in North America with the most Black players.”
Arthur continued to write that sticking to sports was always a childlike fantasy or a disingenuous barb. “Sports is part of the fight, and there’s no turning back.”
RRJ: What are the differences between Canada and the U.S. regarding sports and politics mixing, and what’s your personal experience with “sticking to sports”?
Arthur: The wider issue of politics and sports is that it used to be a lot easier to ignore, especially in Canada for a couple of reasons. One is that athletes were pretty remarkably apolitical throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and that was kind of a reflection of the wider culture. You didn’t have the civil rights era, you didn’t have Muhammad Ali, you didn’t have Bill Russell or Jim Brown.
In Canada specifically, hockey is a remarkably apolitical sport because the athletes don’t talk very much. They’ve gotten less and less open as the Canadian media spotlight’s gotten hotter and hotter. For a long time, there were political issues in sports, and people didn’t pay a lot of attention.
Over time, we kind of moved from innocence to experience on a lot of things: seeing enough stadium deals going wrong; enough labour stoppages in sports, enough cases of athletes being paid under the table and scandals in college sports. You kind of learn that you can’t separate sports from life.
And then lately, though I don’t know if this will last, in terms of politicized athletes and politics and sports intersecting, this is the most political sports has been since the 1960s and in terms of the number of athletes involved, maybe ever.
What do you think catalyzed it? In the ‘60s, there was the civil rights movement and associated struggles. Do you think that similar struggles still exist and that players are asking themselves whether it’s up to them to speak out?
I think people are a product of their times, absolutely. Even before Donald Trump came to power, the advent of smartphone cameras meant that all the things African Americans talk about when it came to their treatment at the hands of police became proof. There was Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner; the list goes on and on. What it amounted to was visual proof that African Americans were being essentially murdered by police in disproportionate numbers and that affected a lot of [athletes].
When LeBron James and the Miami Heat made a statement after Trayvon Martin’s death, that was the first time in a long time that a big-name athlete took a really public stand.
The Trump era changes everything for everybody. One of the defining aspects of the Trump era is that everyone has to choose a side. Even if Trump hadn’t gone after the NFL on Sept. 23, which he did, he still has overseen a justice department, which he’s encouraged to rough up suspects. The justice department has stopped investigations into police departments across the United States for racist attitudes and practices. As Jemele Hill put it, this is more of a “white supremacist presidency” and everybody talks about it, even reaching into the filter bubble of athletes.
Then Trump started picking a fight with sports, and once that happened, this became so much more political than it already felt. Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid started kneeling while Barack Obama was still president. And now, Trump is like gasoline on that fire. All of a sudden, there were about 200, or however many, NFL players kneeling before games. And when it was dying down, Trump sends Mike Pence to a game and it explodes all over again.
So I think it is a product of the times. In basketball, they have more agency and more power. NBA players run the league now. It’s not like NHL players who are drilled from a young age to fit into a team. NFL players are like that too, but have managed to find a voice because it’s something that affects them, people they know or communities they come from.
What you’ve got is a lot of things coming together, and Trump is the biggest igniter. Martin Sheen had a line on the West Wing saying that the president is a human starting gun; Trump’s like that, but it’s something much bigger.
Do you think it’s irresponsible for sports reporters to stick to sports if it’s obvious to everyone that there’s some sort of intrinsic tie between sports and politics?
I’m not sure about irresponsible. Every sports writer has to decide how to do their job, right? You can write about sports in this era and it can still be what it always was; it can still be entertaining and really good.
It’s just that politics are harder to ignore now. If you’re a beat writer for the Cleveland Cavaliers or San Francisco 49ers, this is part of your day. You can still write about sports, but there are more issues. Nothing exists in its own complete bubble from everything else. There’s always collisions with the real world, and it just so happens that sports is going through an era in which the collisions are more numerous, and louder and more powerful, too.
So, you’ve been told to “stick to sports” for a long time.
Yes, because sports for a lot of people is an apolitical space. If someone in the sports world says something political, there are reactions from both sides. I remember when Steve Nash showed up at the 2003 NBA All-Star game, and talked about how in the Iraq war, they should shoot for peace, as his T-shirt said. He got shouted down like crazy. He got told to stick to sports. That’s one of the best bellwethers for how much the era’s changed. Nash recoiled from that like he touched a hot stove, and now, you get athletes across all different sports weighing in. They may get blowback, but it’s not discouraging them from doing it as far as I can tell.
I understand why people want people to stick to sports. There’s an idea that it’s a distraction from everyday life, but that’s not how I view sports. That’s not how I view life, and if people don’t like it, then they don’t like it.
What do you think your ratio is of tweets between sports, politics and extraneous issues not necessarily related to what your beat is?
There are too many tweets to parse that out. I will say this: In the Trump era, it’s been more politics than ever before because the stakes and dangers have been raised. My feed has become more political, but before this, politics was a significant part of it; I wouldn’t say it was the majority, but it’s probably the majority now.
Do you think the responsibility of a sports columnist has changed given the era we’re in?
It’s harder to ignore politics in sports now. That isn’t only when it comes to athletes protesting and Donald Trump. It’s also about issues like collective bargaining, stadium funding, and paying athletes in the NCAA. There’s lots of politics in sports, and we’ve learned more about those things. Every sports writer does their job differently, and it depends on the writer, the writer’s boss, and how they want the job done. It’s hard to stay completely out of the political realm, but many people do it every day.
I don’t blame them for that. No one is asking beat writers to weigh in politically. I’m lucky that I’m a columnist and they pay me for my opinion, but I’m also lucky that my Twitter account has remained my own.
Historically do you think sports writers have ever stuck to sports? You can look back and read guys like Shirley Povich. He was writing in support of integration in Major League Baseball, and even if he didn’t say it in so many words, it was more the attitude he had. A lot of these writers were clearly conservative or liberal in the 1940s and ‘50s.
You can go back and find conservative and liberal opinions on Muhammad Ali or Jim Brown. But I think it’s a product of the time and the culture. Politics just weren’t in vogue in sports for probably the last 25 years or so. It paralleled the era of “greed is good” in the United States and of “Republicans buy shoes, too.” That had a lasting impact, and now it’s starting to turn around again.
People say that the chaos, emotion and stakes of the political environment feel like the 1960s. There’s a reflection of that in the athletes, too.
Is there a recent piece of sports journalism with political commentary that’s resonated with you lately?
Dave Zirin at The Nation has been writing about politics and sports forever, and now he’s sort of in a comfort zone. Drew Magary is a guy who’s really interesting because he was a sports writer and a lifestyle writer and became a politics writer. Politics pulled him in. Read anything by Charles P. Pierce on sports and politics. He’s been doing it forever because those are the two things he writes about, and when they’ve intersected, he’s been fantastic.
The thing about those writers is that they’re all American. Is there anybody in Canada who you think is doing as good of a job, or anywhere near as good of a job, of tapping into political anxieties in sports writing?
There aren’t a lot of people who do it. I don’t feel like I can think of a lot of Canadian sports writing that’s dealt lately with politics off the top of my head. I’m sure it’s happened, I don’t read everything, but there’s not a huge amount of that.
Why do you think Canadian hockey players don’t get as political as other athletes? Do they feel the same pressures as American athletes do?
Racial inequality in the United States doesn’t touch them. It’s the whitest sport, and a lot of these guys are from Scandinavia, Canada or rich, white America. I wrote a piece on this a couple of weeks ago, about Devante Smith-Pelly (of the New Jersey Devils) and Joel Ward (of the San Jose Sharks). They are extreme minorities in hockey. Hockey also has a culture of self-effacement and public humility. Players don’t talk about themselves and make a fetish of it. That’s the culture of hockey. Of all the sports that aren’t well-equipped for this political era, hockey is probably at the top of that list, and baseball may be next.
There are just more athletes in the NBA and NFL for whom this touches home. What did Devante Smith-Pelly say? He’s Canadian, but this is about people who look like him getting killed because of the colour of their skin. That resonates with him, and it’s harder for that to resonate with a white player. An NHL player told me you can’t get a hockey player to weigh in on the weather. What are the odds they’re going to weigh in on systematic mistreatment of African Americans in the United States?
Do you think Canadian readers are as eager as Americans to have their athletes as aware of those issues?
I don’t know if there’s a demand for that. I know I’ve gotten really good reactions when I’ve written about this stuff. I will say that America is our No. 1 TV show as a country. We watch America as much as we watch anything. So I think this stuff can cross over to Canada, but I also think there’s a huge segment of this country that only wants to hear hockey, hockey, hockey.
Another thing that’s important to understand is that you’re doing your job with a white man’s perspective.
Some stuff that’s come out recently has dealt with that. Gregg Popovich said we have no idea what it’s like because we’re white. But the fact is, journalism, especially in Canada, is an overwhelmingly white business. There’s more diversity in the United States sports writing community than there is in Canada. I try to be conscious of that. When I wrote the piece about the Raptors and growing up Black in America, that wasn’t my voice. That was just me saying what they think. You lend credence, power, and a platform to their voice by asking and listening. That’s what I tried to do in the piece about Joel Ward and Devante Smith-Pelly. Listen to what they say, and listen to what I say.
Do you think we’d have better coverage of politics and sport if Canadian media were more diverse?
I think by definition you’d have a more diverse way of looking at sports and politics. Especially when it comes to race. Much of how you approach sports, politics, and life comes from your background and experiences, and a lot of Canadian sports writers have had very similar experiences.
After Trump leaves office, do you think sports writing will ever return to a happy, neutral state, with the attitude that political ideas aren’t sportswriters’ to touch?
We’ll be missing the accelerant that is Donald Trump. Right now, America is really in a cage match for its soul, and that includes attitudes toward women, toward people of colour and toward the poor. A lot of those are going to touch on sports. The fact that the players have [spoken up] means that 13 year olds have watched LeBron do this. I don’t think it’ll be as fevered without Trump as an accelerant, but now they’ve opened an era where we can talk about this. For a long time, it was the Jordan Rules. Maybe now it’ll be the LeBron rules.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.