Right Field: When politics and sports clash

Sport is an integral part of society in the US, so it is only right that athletes have their say in the presidential election

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 4:09am

It is, after all, the United States of America. And as far as the states part goes, be they electoral colleges or educational colleges, America is very much state driven. But united? Not this week and very likely not any week in the near future. The US presidential election laid bare a particularly fractious country and the world of sports was hardly exempt.

Thanks to the explosion of social media, a number of sporting figures weighed in with instant analysis on Barack Obama's victory. Surely you have heard of pitcher Todd Coffey? How about golfer Chris Smith and hockey player Brent Sopel? All three are professional athletes who are largely anonymous yet still felt compelled to express their dismay about the election in a candid and unflinching manner. Because of that, they were besieged with more attention then their athletic feats could ever garner.

Coffey is a rotund North Carolinian who toiled insignificantly on four teams over the past eight years before being released by the Dodgers at the end of this season. He has tweeted repeatedly about losing his freedom of speech and succumbing to a communist overthrow under Obama and after a particularly depressing election result he railed against the idiocy of liberal voters and an avalanche of insults before finally closing his Twitter account for the next four years as a show of protest over the election.

Smith, who has around 1,000 Twitter followers and is trying to get back on the PGA Tour full time, posted this: "Sad day. I hope I don't get sick or need surgery or a job or a loan before I learn to speak Chinese and get on food stamps." There certainly have been more scandalous and derogatory tweets. But because Smith is technically in the public eye, he was endlessly harassed.

Sports used to be rife with outspoken activism and a great deal of it was from the stars of the day like Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Arthur Ashe. Of course, they were all battling for civil rights so the media was more than happy to pick up this noble cause. But the type of dissent and vitriol Coffey and Smith were dealing out, and ironically both were also bemoaning their lack of civil rights, is not conventionally palatable to the, ahem, liberal media. It's also coming from Todd Coffey and Chris Smith, not to be confused with Derek Jeter and Tiger Woods, because this is where dissenting and often extremist views live in sports - on the fringe.

Paul Azinger is a former Ryder Cup captain and television golf analyst who also tweeted his disappointment in a much less confrontational tone, saying that he did his best to fight for an America he believed in but it wasn't meant to be. On the other side, basketball superstar LeBron James and his Miami Heat teammate Dwyane Wade also tweeted fairly benign messages of congratulations to Obama.

Ever since Michael Jordan replied to calls to lend his celebrity to help black Democratic candidates in the 1980s and 1990s by saying that Republicans buy sneakers too, the big-ticket endorsers, like James, Wade and Woods, have wisely avoided any antagonistic twitter bombshells.

Far more beguiling is the case of Sopel, who hit pay dirt two years ago when he won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks as a shot-blocking, stay-at-home defenceman. The Hawks' victory energised all of Chicago and when an unprecedented request came for an appearance by the iconic trophy in the gay pride parade, Sopel asked the team if he could escort the cup in the parade in honour of a hockey executive's gay son who had just passed away. The team agreed and, in the deeply homophobic world of professional sports, what Sopel did was far more courageous than blocking a slap shot. Sopel would soon be traded but joined his old team when they visited the White House to meet Obama. These days, he plays in Russia and few had heard of him before he tweeted last week: "If you crazies elect Obama again I am coming back to Chicago and living off the system."

Sopel is a Canadian and can't vote but claims to have paid millions in taxes in the US so he has a beef with Obama. No matter, he was instantly vilified for his tweet with one prominent columnist claiming athletes should be seen and not heard. But you can't keep politics out of life, so how can you keep it out of sports? The stakes may be a little greater but they have as much right to their opinion as every other citizen. And if some want to make fools of themselves, well they have that right as well.