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STOVALL: Sports, athletes can give us valuable insight if we stop telling them to ‘shut up’

What if you and I were having a conversation about sports, and you offered up an opinion that I thought was ridiculous, and from that moment on, every time you or someone else offered up a sports opinion that I, a sports journalist, didn’t agree with, I would run over and say, ‘Shut up and stick to teaching?’

Or welding. Or gardening. Or CEO-ing. Or whatever it is you do as a profession. 

And what if I made it a point to say that to every person I knew who was a teacher, or a welder or a gardener, who shared opinions that I didn’t agree with? What message would I be sending? 

Perhaps, the message would be that something in me doesn’t believe that a person in that profession has any business, intellectually or otherwise, to participate in that conversation. And if indeed that is the sentiment I’m trying to convey, I would be completely and incredibly wrong, not to mention hypocritical. 

Yet this seems to be the approach that a growing number of us take with athletes who provide personal commentary on things that don’t involve the intricate details of their particular sport. 

The latest example of this happened earlier this week when Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham decided to use her professional platform to air out her personal opinions on someone else who used his professional platform to air out his personal opinions. 

Go figure.

Ingraham took to her Fox News perch and lambasted Cleveland Cavaliers star, LeBron James for his views on President Donald Trump, expressed in a recent video the NBA star did with Golden State’s Kevin Durant.

Ingraham said a few things about James and Durant, and to her credit, one of those things was an admission that they’re great ballplayers. But the rest of what she said also opened a little window to us about her thoughts on the NBA duo as intellectual human beings. 

Ingraham concluded her statements toward James and Durant by saying, “So keep the political commentary to yourself. Or as someone once said, shut up and dribble.”

Now let’s clear out a couple of elephants in the room before we proceed. 

First off, yes I know exactly what James said about the President, and I’ve seen the vulgar term he used to say it. Is there a better, less profane, more effective way to communicate feelings of presidential displeasure? In my opinion, yes. For me, I don’t feel it necessary to use the “f-word” in any attempts at intelligible discourse. 

But everyone isn’t me. And that’s not all James said. Also, let’s not get so outdone about using profanity in a discussion regarding current events that we forget that similar rhetoric has been used by our very own President regarding other nations — primarily African nations — from where many legit American citizens derive.

Let’s also not pretend that sports and politics, current events and even religion don’t, can’t or even shouldn’t intersect. That’s the second elephant in the room that needs to be outed. 

The intersection existed back in 2010 when former NFL player and college football star, Tim Tebow’s face was seen on an anti-abortion commercial. I’m as anti-abortion as the next person, but we’re lying to ourselves if we don’t acknowledge how politicized the topic has become. 

The intersection existed whenever Tebow, a devout Christian, would kneel to pray every time he scored a touchdown, or when his game-time eye black donned John 3:16, one of the most Gospel-centric passages in all of scripture. 

The intersection existed when the Philadelphia Eagles defeated New England in Super Bowl 52, as numerous Eagles players and coaches made no bones about using their platform to share their convictions about Jesus Christ being their Lord and Savior — which I think is fabulous. 

The intersection also existed when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. And when Billie Jean King helped break the gender glass ceiling for compensation in women’s tennis. 

I could go on. The point is this: The collision — if not fusion — of sports, politics and current events in this country is about as old as, well, sports, politics, current events and this country. 

I’m finding, however, that people’s vitriol about athletes speaking out and involving themselves in these matters is rather selective. 

Some of the same people who disliked Tebow’s and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Christian stances, and some of the same people who would like to see a guy like Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney fired for his out-loud Christian faith while standing on the platform of major college football, are some of the same people screaming support for James, Durant and other athletes using their sports platforms to rail against President Trump. 

Likewise, some of the same people who loved what Tebow did, loved what the Eagles did and are head-over-heels in love with how Swinney runs his Clemson program — all instances where non-sports themes creep into sports milieus — are spit-fire mad at those who use their platforms to oppose what they feel are unfair governmental practices and behaviors. 

So let’s be honest with ourselves. Do we really have a problem with athletes and coaches using their platforms for political, religious or current events purposes? Or does the problem only come when we don’t agree with the things they’re saying on that platform? 

If it’s the latter, that’s uber hypocritical.

Because whether you’re conservative or liberal, whether you’re Christian or not, whether you’re black, white, asian or hispanic, all of us use our platforms — whether big or small — to share how we feel about the happenings in our world that go far beyond our professions or even our areas of expertise.

Last I checked, our ability to do this has something to do with our constitutional rights. And my agreement with your views or your agreement with my views has nothing to do with our ability to express those views, even with our platforms. 

Look, I typically like to leave my sports spaces free of the cultural crossover between sports and current events. And some of you, after reading this today, will no doubt express wishes — whether to me directly or to others indirectly — that you hope I go back to that practice after this Sound Off.

I probably will, at least for a while. But before I do, let’s get one thing straight: To tell an athlete to “shut up and dribble,” or to “shut up and stick to sports” when they share an opinion we don’t agree with is akin to saying: “Because you’re an athlete, you don’t have the intellectual capacity to have anything intelligent to say outside of athletics.” 

It’s saying: “All you are is a dumb jock who has barely enough cognitive ability to perform your physical activity in front of all of us smarter people who pay money only to watch you perform.” 

It’s not just LeBron James, who hasn’t earned a college degree yet, but said he’ll pursue one at the University of Akron at some point. But this “stick to sports” rhetoric comes almost anytime an athlete speaks his or her mind about something in the non-sports world. 

Never mind the fact that a vast majority of these athletes have college degrees, graduate degrees, own businesses, run nonprofits, manage million-dollar budgets, etc. Things many of us who say “stick to sports” probably couldn’t handle if we had to. 

When we say “stick to sports,” we’re literally insulting the same former student-athletes whom we lauded several years back when they received their high school diplomas and signed their letters of intent on national signing days of yesteryear. 

Athletes like the ones we just celebrated here in Covington two Wednesdays ago.

We’re saying: “Your place in athletics disqualifies you from sharing anything of intellectual value to the world, even though you live in the same world we do and are just as humanly invested in it as we are.”

And if that’s the case — if a person has to be firmly entrenched in whatever area of life he or she is opining on in order for that opinion to matter, then really, doesn’t that disqualify all of us from virtually saying anything about most issues? 

That’s not smart. I hope and pray one day we’ll get back to a place in this nation where we can recover the middle ground, and understand that my views aren’t 100 percent right, nor are yours. But they’re still valuable, and we still have our right to express them.

Maybe then we can stop trying to silence and insult those voices we don’t agree with, choosing instead to learn what we can about them and from them. 

I believe sports and their athletes, unlike many other things, can provide that camaraderie elixir that we all need to truly make our nation great — but only if we stop telling them to shut up when we don’t agree.

Gabriel Stovall is the sports editor of The Covington News. He can be reached at, or on Twitter @GabrielStovall1.