MIAMI – The only intellectually honest way to respond to those who yell and scream about wanting their sports separate from their politics is to pat them on the head and tell them to bless their heart.
We know, now more than ever, that those two threads running through American culture are impossible to pull apart – if only because our politicians won’t let us. In fact, as Super Bowl LIV week begins, it has never been clearer that every big football event is going to be political as long as President Donald Trump is in the White House. Let’s not pretend otherwise for this of all Super Bowls.
Because after Trump’s nationally televised pregame interview that is reportedly being conducted by Sean Hannity in the middle of an impeachment trial – nothing political about that, right? – America is going to tune in to watch Colin Kaepernick’s former team, which Vice President Mike Pence referred to in a Wisconsin speech prior to the NFC championship game as “Nancy Pelosi’s 49ers.”
Hey, let’s at least give Pence some credit for accuracy. Pelosi, the Democratic House Speaker, does represent San Francisco and is indeed a 49ers fan who recently referenced being unable to use her family’s season tickets because of that whole constitutional duty thing going on right now. On the other hand, if you’re talking about the 49ers and the first thing that comes to mind is, “That’s the team Nancy Pelosi roots for,” you might want to cut back on Fox News.
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But no matter what side you happen to fall on, we’re not going to escape this for quite awhile. It was only a couple years ago, after all, that old pro-Trump, anti-Kaepernick tweets from former Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa caused people to wonder whether it would be a problem for the 49ers to draft him given the likely left-leaning nature of their fan base.
It was, of course, a very silly debate because he was quite clearly the best defensive player the 49ers could have drafted and part of a phenomenon that is not new at all within diverse football locker rooms. Though everyone who follows football closely has moved on from that controversy, most of all Bosa himself, it is a stone-cold guarantee that his previous support for Trump will be a huge topic Sunday night on social media if he sacks Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes or makes an impactful play.
With the 2020 election heating up, impeachment dominating the news and a president who is increasingly attaching himself to football moments, it’s hard to escape the feeling that politics are going to be more in-your-face than ever at this Super Bowl.
Beyond the pregame interview, which is a Super Bowl tradition no matter who the president is, the Trump campaign has purchased 60 seconds of ad time worth a reported $10 million to run during the game. Former New York City mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg has also purchased a 60-second ad that is expected to be critical of Trump.
There’s also a 30-second ad, which ran first during the AFC and NFC title games and will once again during the Super Bowl, that addresses police brutality against African-Americans as told through the eyes of former NFL receiver Anquan Boldin, whose cousin Corey Jones was shot and killed during a vehicle breakdown on the side of the road by a plainclothes officer in 2015. The ad is being purchased by the NFL itself through its “Inspire Change” initiative, which focuses on social justice issues.
Of course, the very fact that ad exists and will run during the Super Bowl undoubtedly brings up another round of questions about why Kaepernick was professionally ex-communicated from the NFL for kneeling during the national anthem to bring awareness to this very issue. That the 49ers are making their first Super Bowl appearance since 2013, when Kaepernick was their quarterback, only adds to the relevance of his story.
Trump, too, has come full circle on the NFL. In 2017, at the height of the kneeling controversy, he was tweeting negatively about the NFL, commissioner Roger Goodell and some individual players almost weekly. In 2018, he used any little bit of negative ratings news for the NFL to take a victory lap. Now, he’s using the league’s showcase event to help promote his re-election.
But this is the new normal in America. When an athlete or a coach speaks out against the president, they’re told to stick to sports. But when the president comes to the College Football Playoff championship game, gets a standing ovation from a crowd of fans from two of the most conservative states and then spends his flight back to D.C. retweeting the praise, we’re supposed to believe it’s not political? Get real. It was a campaign rally, and if the president felt as though he would get just as positive a response at the Super Bowl, you can bet he’d do it again.
Maybe one day the country will move on from its current state of micro-measuring every moment to see whether it pushes people right or left, but we’re certainly not there now, and even the biggest American sporting event is no exception. Telling people to stick to sports is naive under the best of circumstances, but at this Super Bowl in particular, the politicians certainly won’t let us.
Follow Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.
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