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Volume 20 No. 42
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Sports answers back: Don’t let the business be deemed a problem

When attacked this time, at least the sports industry defended itself.

We thankfully didn’t see a repeat of 2008, when sports sponsorship was disparaged during the recession as wasteful spending, and much of the industry, including myself, stood by silently and didn’t forcefully articulate the value of sports as a marketing platform. That didn’t happen this time. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith strongly — and immediately — stood up for the players following President Donald Trump’s comments. Both understood their responsibility to protect and defend the people they work with, and put principles ahead of politics. It was one of their finest moments.

This is a difficult and divisive issue. There is division in society; there is division in the stadiums; there is division in our newsroom.

There is division in the NFL, where many owners are upset that players are not standing for the national anthem, as they grew up standing for the anthem with hands over hearts. Saints owner Tom Benson served in the Navy; Alex Spanos, the father of Chargers owner Dean Spanos, served in the Army Air Forces in World War II. But owners can’t risk losing their locker room, which would have happened had they criticized their players for not standing. Goodell and the owners had to be with the players on this issue, and while such unity of players and owners — two vastly different constituencies — may be fleeting, it was necessary at this emotional juncture.

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When looking at the positive role sports can play in society, I watched with great respect the Cleveland Browns, who after a miscommunication with local police and firefighters, engaged them and formed a plan that resulted in all three groups standing for the anthem alongside military personnel. That, to me, is progress and coming together.

But these issues go way beyond the anthem. The sports business must stand up if it’s criticized and must tout its vast contributions to society and global culture. We also can’t let athletes become demonized or cast as villains. It was the players, those put on the defensive, who came across thoughtful, measured and responsible.

Every day, the sports industry sees remarkable efforts by so many players, like Benjamin Watson, who I wrote about recently and who does so much good in the Baltimore community; Thomas Davis, in my home market of Charlotte; Malcolm Jenkins, who has been a smart, social advocate; Chris Long, who continues to help those less fortunate; and J.J. Watt, whose heroic efforts helped raise an amazing $37 million in Hurricane Harvey relief. The players I’ve encountered and whose actions I have witnessed are thoughtful, respectful and hardworking. They are not saints, but many are trying to do the right things.

Sports isn’t perfect; we know that. And people are angry. But if sports becomes a political lightning rod, we can’t let the industry we work in, and dedicate so much time and energy to, become a target of ridicule or boycott. We can’t be silent or stay on the sidelines. Sports is inspiring people around the world every day and doing so much for society. To suggest otherwise deserves an immediate and convincing response.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at