A coach in 2021 who still employed plays and schemes from the 1980s would get run off the field by more agile, forward-thinking minds. In football, as in life, the only constant is change. What worked then won’t work now, no matter how well it worked back in the day.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, a Republican out of Alabama, has substantial experience with college athletes headed to the pros. On the eve of the NFL draft, he offered up some advice about young athletes speaking out on politics … advice that’s old-school classic but also out of step with the way America as a whole is trending.
“I think people should downplay politics more,” Tuberville said during a Capitol Hill street interview by TMZ. “Everybody wants to make an opinion and that’s fine. But, I think, especially for young people to get involved in something that maybe they might not understand as much, I think they need to let people that, whatever they do for a living, justify it.”
Tuberville advised athletes to think a bit more before speaking out. “Talk about what you know about, be gentle with your speech,” he said. “Treat people with humility. Nobody’s looking for an outspoken person. We’re too divided as it is.”
On its face, it’s a nice sentiment, particularly the part about being gentle with your speech and treating others with humility. But it’s also worth noting that one of the most outspoken college athletes of last year is slated to go No. 1 in Thursday’s NFL draft. Trevor Lawrence spoke out in support of causes such as Black Lives Matter and the safety of players during the pandemic:
(On the other hand, the closer he’s gotten to the draft, Lawrence has spent the last few months posting wedding photos and sponsor messages, not political stances.)
Thanks to social media, college players now have much more of a voice than ever before. And thanks to impending Name, Image, Likeness legislation, they’re about to get much more control of their own brand than ever before. As pretty much anyone who’s watched a sporting event in the last year knows, the days of athletes standing back and staying silent on anything beyond the field are done.
It would be easy to attack Tuberville personally, but he’s speaking an opinion that many millions of Americans still endorse. A recent Seton Hall/YouGov poll indicates that half of Americans are fine with athletes using their voices … but that over a third of Americans were against the idea. That’s a not-insubstantial percentage of the American public, and it’s likely that the percentage is even higher in a conservative-leaning sport like football.
The attraction of a just-play-ball mindset is obvious: the athletes are seen but not heard. They’re there for the entertainment of the fans in the stands, who can enjoy the ballgame without having to think about the thorny issues of racial and social justice that athletes have raised over the last year.
It’s fine for fans to want sports to be about, you know, sports. One doesn’t often have to hear about the political views of, say, one’s bartender or pilot, after all. But there’s a difference between not wanting to hear social views, and actively pushing to silence those views. That hinge point, between wanting peace and enforcing silence, is what will define the scope of the fan-athlete relationship going forward.
The flip side of a say-anything approach, for athletes, is that speaking one’s mind isn’t a one-way street. Voice your beliefs, and you’ll get pushback, possibly in the form of angry tweets from people with followers in the single digits … and possibly in the form of declining ratings for many sports across the board. Opponents of social justice in sports are numerous, and they are vocal.
But many athletes, leagues and advertisers are gambling that appealing to the half of Americans who want their players to do more than just play is worth losing the percentage that wants them to stick to sports. Is that a reasonable bet? Both sides have their take, but for now, neither knows the real answer.
Regardless, for both athletes and fans, change is here. Change is happening.
While he was coach at Auburn, Tuberville went 7-3 against Alabama, so it’s entirely possible he thinks it’s a good idea to stand up to the tide. But that was a very different Alabama than today, and these are very different times than ever before for American athletes. Tuberville and others can wish that athletes would stick to sports, but at the moment, that’s becoming as unrealistic as hoping to win games without passing the ball.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at [email protected]
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