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Athletes making political statements will never go away

From serving our country in times of war, to fighting for the right not to serve, to standing up to perceived injustices, athletes reserve the right to use sports for their political forum.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

“Keep politics out of sports!”

“I’m not watching the NFL anymore because of your social stance!”

“Don’t bring your politics/social opinions onto the field of play!”

We live in divisive times. There is no doubting that. From our tweet-happy President to Colin Kaepernick and his movement to use the ‘kneel’ to bring light to police brutality against minorities, you can’t turn on a sporting event or walk through a turnstile into a game without confronting some athlete trying to bring light to a political or social subject.

And for some reason, we as a nation are reacting as if this is some sort of new phenomenon that’s making the rounds across America for the first time.

Why have we become so forgetful as a society? Is having your head buried inside that smartphone 10 hours per day making people lose their memory? Forget millennials, they’ve got no idea of anything existing prior to their births. The world didn’t exist until they arrived.

I can remember, as a kid, watching old Muhammad Ali lose to Larry Holmes in a boxing match on TV and hearing the announcers talk about his career. That was the first time I can recall being subjected to the ‘political athlete’ and it blew my mind! Keep in mind, I was 10 years old and obsessed with sports, but that prompted me to research Ali at my school library.

To say I was overwhelmed at the time about the story of Cassius Clay is an understatement. It took me years, even decades, to really realize the impact of what he did and what he stood for. I’m not even talking about his connection to the Nation of Islam, because that was even more confusing to me. What stood out to me as a kid was that he was willing to walk away from being Heavyweight Champ because he didn’t want to fight in the Vietnam War.

That made me think. As much as a 10-year-old was able to do back in 1980 with no internet, Google, 400-plus TV channels and countless other methods of gathering information.

Over time, I read more about how many major league baseball players volunteered to serve in our military in both World War I and II; how the career of Ted Williams could have been much greater than it was had he not been drafted for service in 1942 with the U.S. Navy and then again in 1951 when he was recalled for duty with the Marines to serve in the Korean Conflict.

Truth be told, the Splinter wasn’t too happy about that latter call-up. But like a good American, he served his country in a time of need.

Could you see that happening today? Would an Aaron Rodgers or Lebron James take to something like this in the manner Williams did?

We all know the answer to that question.

Of course that would never happen, as the draft was abolished in 1973. But my point is, during times of political upheaval, athletes have been subject to making tough choices. Segue into more modern times and 9/11. The day the towers fell in New York will never leave my memory or the memory of any American.

Including Pat Tillman.

His story is well documented by now. An Arizona State University grad, Tillman was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals. He could have signed as a free-agent elsewhere, but he stayed loyal to the team that drafted him. He watched 9/11 unfold. He, along with his brother, enlisted in the Army in the summer of 2002, giving up millions of dollars to fight as a Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was tragically killed by friendly fire in 2004.

Do you think any athlete today would do something like that?

We’re talking about a rare breed of human being, and his decision to enlist was triggered by a horrific act of terror. But because Tillman was moved by the events he saw, it was enough to make the man choose a much different path than the one he was walking at the time.

The fact of the matter is that we’ve seen athletes from all walks of life make a choice to merge their careers and political views. The actions of many in the NFL on Sunday were not intended, nor were they directed, towards the American flag, what it represents or the military people who have served and died to protect our freedom.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Curt Schilling. Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Tom Brady. Charles Barkley. Mahamoud Abdul-Rauf. Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson.

I could go on and on.

I have no issue with a player who wants to take a knee, lock arms or do something to make a statement. What I do have a problem with is people acting like this is a new thing on the sports scene.

News’s not. It’s been going on for decades.

Plan on burning your NFL jerseys? Fine.

Cancelling your NFL Sunday Ticket? Sure, that’s cool.

Not going to watch the sport ever again? Given the slide in ratings, yeah, I can also see that happening. But to pretend this is new and unacceptable is just not accurate.

John Phillips began covering sports in Pittsburgh in 1991. He’s in his 4th season of providing opinion commentary about the Steelers for BTSC. Follow JP on Facebook at