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Volume 22 No. 31
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Forum: Sports can’t avoid the pull of a new political season

When I first started working on Capitol Hill for U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in the early 1990s, the legislative director, Luke Albee, quickly picked up on my love of sports and turned every political reference into a sports metaphor. “Abe, we’re going on offense today, we’re going to take this legislation and go five-wide, spread support and move quickly”; “We’re going to kick ass today. We’re too deep, this vote won’t even be close”; or “We didn’t play as a team, we’re too dysfunctional to get this legislation through.”

His point was not subtle — politics is sport. It’s about winning, and doing everything you can to out-coach, out-maneuver and out-play the other side. It was a fun lesson for a naïve and idealistic 21-year-old. I think back on that as a year from now, voters in the United States will be heading to the polls in what will be another polarizing election.

Even without the cloud of possible impeachment, the 2020 election will be a challenging period that will test affiliations, affinities and relationships. It also will affect the sports business. Fresh off the geopolitical dispute between the NBA and China that engulfed Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, Adam Silver, LeBron James, Steve Kerr and many others, how will athletes, executives and even businesses demonstrate their political advocacy? Or will they?

It’s a topic I’ve discussed with many leaders in the business, and all agree it’s so sensitive that no one was willing to go on the record about it. Quite simply, the easy path for athletes is to say nothing and remain out of the political discussion. That’s the advice they’ve received from many agents and communications experts — why risk significantly alienating a large segment of your fan base that disagrees with you? 

But history is filled with athletes who did not stay quiet. Players and coaches will have to make an individual choice over the next 12 months while understanding the great risk to their image and reputation. Some seem to relish that — James, Kerr, Megan Rapinoe and Gregg Popovich have had no qualms taking on President Donald Trump. It’s part of how they want to be viewed, and one could argue it hasn’t significantly affected their career or ability to succeed. The athletes who feel passionately and feel informed are unlikely to stick to sports.

Rather than feeling forced to stay quiet, let’s hope athletes are true to themselves — regardless of their beliefs and values — and are informed participants in our democracy. Yes, the price of getting involved is the very real risk of alienating those with different beliefs and potentially limiting some commercial and personal opportunities. Many athletes will stay away, but because of the issues, intensity and importance of this election, I expect many to speak up. Perhaps this advocacy doesn’t bubble up during the primaries, but more when we get to the general election. In addition, advocacy could be issue-oriented, as there are differences between supporting causes and candidates — causes like voting rights seem less polarizing.

On the other hand, I expect leaders of organizations and businesses to steer clear of candidates. If you need specific proof, see the fallout from Stephen Ross’ decision to host a fundraiser for Trump over the summer, to the lengths the Lerner family went to avoid being part of Trump’s visit to the World Series at Nationals Park — reportedly pushing that appearance to Major League Baseball to elude the appearance of being close to him.

Owners will continue to be big financial donors to their candidates, but I don’t expect them to be publicly active, especially seeing the power of consumers to boycott business. Some business leaders may believe their values and standards are strong and can withstand a four-year election cycle. But those will be few. As we’ve seen this fall with the NBA in China, the important aspect is that organizations and leaders of sports business support a person’s right to speak out, regardless of points of view.

The sports world will be pulled into the political arena more than ever before. Our population is as passionate about politics as they are about sports. Be mindful as to how much the two worlds have in common and watch how closely they intersect over the next year.

First Look podcast, with industry news and trends Abe is watching, at the 21:37 mark:

Abraham Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.