Clemson Football and the Hypocrisy of “Shut Up and Dribble”

We all love our football teams, basketball teams, favorite athletes. But do we “love” them enough to listen to them on issues that don’t involve winning games?

Anyone who has known me for more than 10 minutes knows how I feel about Clemson. Particularly Clemson football.

I was raised to love one team: Furman. And I was raised to despise one team: Clemson.

The reasons that I was raised this way are largely irrelevant. I have rarely, if ever, pulled for Clemson in any sport on any level. The exception is Clemson basketball, where I have always hoped for them to beat UNC in Chapel Hill. Now that this task is complete, I will return to the status quo of my feelings for (or should I say against?) the Tigers.

(Actually, I am much less anti-Clemson than I once was. But I’m not happy about it).

Now that my explicit bias is out, I confess that I am now torn. I find myself in a place where I am slightly inclined to pull for the Clemson football players while still being against some of their fans. The reason goes beyond the common parlance of fan bases who lob accusations against one another.

In their game against Virginia on October 3, a handful of Clemson players put messages on their jerseys that some fans deemed too “political” in nature.

Let me offer some background. I started to write this blog weeks ago, as many athletes began to express their views regarding race and equity in this country. The response of many people mimicked Laura Ingraham’s “order” to LeBron James when he expressed his political views.

She said that LeBron should “Shut up and dribble.” It is hard to imagine a more condescending response to an athlete expressing an opinion. This is a stark contrast to her stance regarding other athletes who lean more towards her views.

This came up again last week in a Tweet from a sports commentator that I follow. He leans much more conservative than I; hence, I pay attention to his excellent sports commentary and give little heed to his political views. However, he expressed a view that some deemed to be too “political.”

Their “command” to him? “Stick to sports.” I do not even know what the original tweet was, and I am still disturbed by the response. You may not like it, but sports personalities are not obligated to silence on all subjects other than sports.

This came to a head on Saturday, when Clemson fans began to express their displeasure with the displays on the back of the jerseys of some Tiger players. I committed the cardinal sin of reading the comments about this. I saw fans vent the anger and outrage and threats to “disown” the program over the political messaging.

And what were those messages?

Justice

Love

Matter

Vote

Equality

Peace

Change

The entire team warmed up with black tshirts with the words “We need change.”

Wow. What disturbing, upsetting, “political” messages these are. If you abandon the program for these messages, that is a lot closer to dipping your foot in the pool than being “All In.”

Let us start with the fact that not all Tiger fans felt this way. I saw tweets and posts from many who supported the players in their call for justice and unity in our society. Coach Dabo Swinney did not care for the approach but did allow his players to do it. Other fans expressed dislike for the players’ decision (much like Dabo) but supported their right to make that choice.

To those who were so horribly offended by these “political” statements? Maybe Clemson is better off without you.

Sports is a multi-BILLION dollar industry in this country. Local governments, state legislatures, congress and the President of the United States offer commentary and criticism and even ultimatums to sports leagues. State institutions rake in millions of dollars from university athletic programs.

And coming soon to your state tax office: Profits from sports gambling.

Like it or not, sports IS political—not to mention societal.

How many people have gained political access by using their millions/billions of dollars to curry favor or influence in the political process? But suddenly, when athletes or sports commentators exercise similar influence, we want them to “shut up and dribble.”

We’re past that in sports. Way, way past that.

We may want our sports with silence, but it is far too large of a force in society to continue expecting—much less demanding—such a stance.

If you do not like what team or school or sports personality says about politics or think that their perspective is unwarranted, you can ignore them or stop following them. You also have no restriction on expressing your viewpoint.

But neither should they. Before you make the choice to abandon your team because they exercise their rights, think long and hard about the message you are sending.

We cheer these young men and women, rejoice in their on-field success and claim it is OUR success. Think about the terminology we use in reference to players, particularly at a program of Clemson’s stature.

Our guys (or girls)

We

My

Us

Love

(Yes, love).

“I love MY Tigers!” or whoever your team happens to be is pretty common among fans. But are these truly terms of love, or are they terms of ownership?

If we only love them when they are winning games for us and not when they have something to say, then those terms of affection and unity ring extremely hollow.

Better yet, if we threaten to withdraw our investment in that affection and unity when they speak, then perhaps we view players more as property than people, a commodity that we “love” only in the way that we do our car or our best shirt or our favorite food.

If we are going to cheer athletes on the field of play—particularly athletes that do not look like most of the people in the stands—then why are we so threatened by listening to their views of what is happening off the field? As long as they are winning and successful, it’s “Our” and “Us” and “We.” But when they ask us to consider matters beyond the field, it suddenly becomes “they” and “them.”

Some might call that a “plantation” mentality. While you may not like the term, I would challenge you to disagree with the perspective. If you choose to disagree, I would further challenge you to consider it from the athlete’s perspective, particularly black athletes.

Some of you may ask, “What if one of the players endorsed a candidate? How would you feel then?” That would change the equation, to be sure.

But let’s cross that bridge if we come to it, shall we? From what I saw on the Clemson jerseys on that Saturday night, they did not endorse any party or politician. They endorsed a view of humanity.

If you cannot agree with that view or think that these young men should simply play football without regard to the human condition, so be it. That is your right.

Just keep in mind that they are not chattel utilized to satisfy your unfulfilled athletic ambitions. And they are under no obligation to shut up just because they wear the uniform of the school that you like.

If you truly value them as human beings, then spend your time contemplating their messages rather than just cheering when they do well for you on the field.

Like it or not, it is vital to morality and Christian ethics to support these athletes both on and off the field. And that means listening to them while we cheer, and long after the cheering has stopped.

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