Let Them Boycott!

Empty court and bench following the scheduled start time of Game Five of the Eastern Conference First Round between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Orlando Magic at AdventHealth Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., August 26, 2020 (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports)No one is saying athletes should not have social consciences or forums to express their political views. But the game is not such a forum, not if they expect people to attend or tune in.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE O stensibly, the NBA boycotts, which other sports are adopting, are illogical. But then, the animating concept behind the player protests — “systemic racism,” derived from the smear that the nation’s police forces are hunting down young black men — is irrational, a triumph of distorted narrative over critical thinking. Why should the boycotts be any different?

For a work stoppage to be successful, it has to withhold something the potential consumer wants. Or, at least, wants badly enough to be depressed by its absence. Big-time professional sports has been that something for a long time. The sand is running out of the hourglass, though, and that won’t change if the players don’t figure out why.

With some exceptions, the astronomically paid athletes are inexperienced in anything other than their sport — understandably so: They are young, and it takes full-time dedication to compete at their elite level. They are ill-informed, or flat uninformed, about the phenomena they claim to be animated by. They do not approach public policy with an open mind. That, too, is not their fault. Modern-era education has supplanted critical thinking with tribalism, grievance-mongering, and hostility to the free exchange of ideas and viewpoints. It seems paradoxical, given how self-regarding athletes tend to be, but marination in progressive tropes has left them devoid of self-perception. The wealth, the adulation, and the open doors enjoyed by the players, a large percentage of whom are African American, defy the Manichean tale they parrot about America.

It does not dawn on today’s athletes, then, that their saleable value lies in giving the rest of us a unifying escape from our personal struggles and social divisions. For two or three hours, we can marvel at how the well-executed pick-and-roll is nearly impossible to defend. The conservative and the liberal, the black and white fan, all of us can relate to wishing we could be the slugger who carries a team, wishing we could feel, even for a moment, what it’s like to have such talent.

The players don’t realize that the value they can singularly provide, the value that the consumer craves, is the oasis from turmoil. The oasis is disappearing. The players first invited the turmoil in, and now they are stoking it.

The Left ruins everything.

I know, I know; you want to blame conservatives, too. Well, yes, we do want norms respected and preserved. I would like everyone to stand in unison for the national anthem: a couple of minutes that invite our attention to being one national community, to forebears who sacrificed for the preservation of our free society, to the duty of preserving it for our children.

That is what I’d like . . . but I do not insist on it.

We’re about pluralism, not my way or the highway. “The Star Spangled Banner,” which was not even the national anthem until 1931, was not routinely played before sporting events until World War II. I have no sympathy for the racialist indictment against the anthem or the American flag, but I respect your right to believe that indictment and take offense at patriotic displays. We are talking here about coming together to enjoy a ballgame, not to air our political disputes. I wish patriotic displays were not controversial, but fine: If playing the anthem sullies the experience for a sizable number of fans, let’s not do it. There are plenty of other forums for arguing politics and wondering whether a nation can remain a nation if its symbols repel a critical mass of its people.

If the anthem is played, however, don’t sully the experience for me — not if you expect me to keep watching and attending.

The players don’t get this. In part, it’s because neither they nor the people who influence them understand the Constitution they like to blather about. They don’t get that the prohibition on government suppression of speech does not mean an employer or a private association, such as a sports league, is barred from restricting words and gestures. There is no right to engage in protests at the game. The owners and leagues have decided to indulge this behavior, but are not required to do so.

That aside, the players fail to see the obvious ramifications of the boundless free-expression right they demand for themselves. Their right to offend me is my right to tune them out.

Get it? I believe in freedom, including the players’ freedom. If the government tried to impose a law that said no kneeling during the national anthem, I’d support their opposition to it, no matter how repulsed I am by the gesture. The prudent exercise of freedom is our aspiration, maybe even our expectation, but it is not a constitutional mandate. I concede the players’ right to boycott, to protest, to kneel or otherwise display contempt during the national anthem. As long as you’re not inciting violence and lawlessness, you have the right to do those things.

But, again, I have rights, too. We’re not talking about the government suppressing the players’ right to dissent. We’re talking about the players’ arrogant presumption that their free-expression right includes entitlement to a captive audience — confident that progressive sports journos will ennoble the protesting players and shame any offended fans. In reality, I don’t have to support an athlete’s embrace of a politics I reject any more than I have to buy a copy of White Fragility.

I love sports. But the exhibition of sporting contests is just one thing out of many that I enjoy and that compete for my attention. If watching a game becomes an occasion for more irritation than joy, I can go read a book . . . or work out . . . or do a crossword puzzle . . . or watch a movie . . . or any of a thousand things I’d rather do than abide the invasion of a political agenda I detest into the space where I retreat from politics.

The athlete no longer wants to be our escape, no longer wants to create an experience where a community comes together to celebrate its love of sport and competition. The athlete now presumes to lecture us. The athlete now wants to begin the festivities not with a pitch or a kickoff but with a signal that lets everybody know he is aligned with one distinctive part of the community — the one that is hostile to many devoted fans, and to most anyone who is not an apparatchik.

The athlete has an undeniable right to do this. But rights don’t exist in a vacuum. They compete with the rights of others. Their exercise is not cost-free. When Bill de Blasio or Ilhan Omar tries to lecture me, I change the channel. When I arrive at something billed as a celebration only to find that it is a demonstration — especially one aimed at making me feel unwelcome — I leave. If you want an audience, you have to provide what the audience wants, not give the audience misgivings about staying.

Of course, we’re supposed to accept that the incantation of “black lives matter” as the claimed motive for offensive displays means there can be no valid misgivings about them. But see, the only people who believe that, or at least say they do, are the “social justice” charlatans — and, for the NBA, boycotting them makes about as much sense as would boycotting the league’s patrons in Communist China.

As a proposition, no decent person believes black lives do not matter. To believe otherwise would be as noxious as objecting to the equally valid proposition that all lives matter.

Why does the Left find “all lives matter” objectionable? Because when it invokes black lives matter, the Left is not really referring to the undisputed proposition that the lives of black people have dignity and worthiness equal to those of all people. With a nod and a wink, the Left is peddling Black Lives Matter, the Marxist, anti-American enterprise. The Left’s genius is the rapturous cypher. We are enticed or extorted into endorsing a shrewdly crafted catchphrase at face value — Black Lives Matter! Change! Choice! Living wage! Social justice! — and we’re expected to pretend that the slogan is not the wedge for a policy menu that its advocates dare not state plainly.

No one is saying athletes should not have social consciences or forums to express their political views. It is just that the game is not such a forum, not if they expect people to attend or tune in.

The modern athlete complains when that point is made. How precious. With their wealth and status, a million opportunities for social activism are open to athletes that are not open to ordinary people, who well know they have no right to demand that their private employers put up with the workplace’s conversion into a soapbox.

Off the field, there is a great deal that athletes can do to advance the causes they care about. LeBron James, to take one of many examples, has invested heavily in the education of at-risk children. He is to be applauded for giving back, for having skin in the game rather than just virtue signaling. And while I’d rather get a root canal than listen to LeBron bloviate about police reform, many people do care what he thinks, and his iconic station yields limitless media opportunities to tell them. He has earned that by combining incomparable talent with a superhuman work ethic. Still, if the price of admission to see him play is to endure his pregame antics, then I’d rather not. He has chosen, moreover, to make himself a politically polarizing figure, and there’s a deep popularity cost for that, too — which is not to be dismissed when you’re in pro sports, a popularity business.

There are too many aspects of life where we have to put up with the Left’s tireless badgering and its bleak portrayal of the country. But nobody has to watch sports. The NBA boycott, cheered by the media and thus trending through other sports leagues, is a bad idea. The pandemic has the players in a bubble. Each game is another chance to play before lots of empty seats. Another chance to acclimate to the future.

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