Ohio Against The World (II)

And speaking of Ohio Against The World, the Cleveland Browns punched their ticket for the NFL playoffs yesterday. The Browns somehow managed to hold on to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers despite having a slew of their players unavailable due to NFL COVID protocols. Fittingly, the game was finally secured when Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield kept the ball for a single wing scamper and picked up a crucial first down that allowed the Browns to run out the clock.

Next weekend the Browns will participate in the NFL playoffs for the first time since the 2002 NFL season — the only time the Browns made the playoffs since coming back into the League. The Browns lost in heartbreaking fashion in that one playoff appearance, to the Pittsburgh Steelers. This time, 18 years later, they’ll be playing the Steelers again in the first round of the playoffs.

Eighteen years is a very long time, and in 2002 the world was a very different place. No one in 2002 would have forecast that it would take the Browns 18 years to return to the playoffs, but here they are. Will they advance? Given the impact of the coronavirus on the Browns this year, and the number of players who have been disqualified from games, we’ll have to see who even gets to play. But it’s nice to know that the long drought is ended.

Sports And Politics

Yesterday my ESPN app sent me an “alert” that Baker Mayfield, the Cleveland Browns’ starting quarterback, had tweeted that he had decided to reverse course and stand for the National Anthem at the start of today’s game. (Or maybe it was the other way around; I really haven’t been paying close attention to Baker Mayfield’s apparently evolving stance on the National Anthem.)

Mostly, my reaction was that things sure have changed in the wide world of sports.since I was a kid. Of course, there wasn’t Twitter or social media of any kind in those days, but it’s hard to imagine any professional sports figure of my youth sending out any kind of politically oriented messages on the day before a Big Game. Their focus would be exclusively on getting their Game Face on for the contest — or, at least, they sure would want you to think that mental preparation was their sole preoccupation.

Of course, politics did mix with sports from time to time in those days. The John Carlos and Tommy Smith Black Power salutes during their medal award ceremony in the 1968 Olympics were a big deal, and if I recall correctly Redskins coach George Allen publicly endorsed President Nixon and let him call a play during a game. But for the most part sports was separate, and a chance to get away from politics and enter a world where your sports allegiances were far more important than your political inclinations and people from across the political spectrum could unite in celebration of the Browns’ 1964 NFL championship victory or commiserate about the ineptitude of the Cleveland Indians during the ’70s.  Sports was a kind of safe space for cocktail party conversation or backyard cookout chatter.

Those days are long gone.  Today’s athletes seem to be as immersed in politics as anybody else, and are very open about their views.  I’m perfectly okay with that, and recognize that these days a figure like LeBron James or Baker Mayfield has to be thinking about his position on issues like standing or kneeling for the National Anthem, because other people are going to be paying attention to it,  And athletes are as entitled as the next person to express their political views and use platforms like Twitter to do so.  Of course, political speech adds a new dimension to the sports star-fan dynamic.  Athletes who venture into the political world have to recognize that, just as they have the right to express their political views, fans do, too — maybe by booing, maybe by criticizing what they perceive as inconsistency or hypocrisy in the athletes’ positions, or maybe by just deciding that the world of sports is no longer as fun and innocent and apolitical as it used to be and not buying tickets to games or watching broadcasts or buying jerseys with their favorite player’s name,   

The days when sports and politics were separate worlds probably will never come back.  Politics has invaded everything, and sports is not immune.  That’s the reality, but I do kind of miss the days when you could watch a ball game for a few hours without politics intruding into the triumphs and heartbreaks of the sports fantasy world.